NBC executives have to be the happiest people on the eastern seaboard — at least the marketing department. The network will have a captive audience — almost literally — tonight because of the snowstorm that buried much of the area. And whoever is the host — Matt Lauer or Bob Costas; NBC hasn’t told us as of this afternoon — will serve up a steaming plate of pathos, an NBC specialty.
What will you see? Well, you’ll see a semi-historic American podium sweep in men’s slopestyle skiing. The United States has swept the podium in Winter Olympic history just twice before: men’s halfpipe snowboarding in 2002 and men’s figure skating in 1956.
The third time came Thursday, when Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper went gold-silver-bronze. Christensen’s gold was the fourth for the United States, and all of them were won at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
Christensen has the kind of backstory NBC loves, but not in a ghoulish way. Christensen’s father died six months ago, his career went sideways, he barely made the U.S. team as a coach’s pick, and his mother didn’t know until three days before the Games that she needed a ticket to Russia. (Fortunately, she’s a travel agent.) It’s one of those times when NBC’s canned coverage collides with a great, great story, so pop some corn and take it in.
Oh, and lest we forget Kenworthy, he’s got a backstory of his own: puppies. Yes, puppies. He found a mother and her pups, part of the plethora of stray dogs roaming Sochi, and is taking care of them and planning to bring them home with him from the Games.
Puppies. Seriously. Awesome.
Then you’ll get the drama of the men’s short program. And I’m not talking about Johnny Weir’s couture. Oh, my. First came Evgeni Plushenko, the only Russian in the field, who skated during warm-ups and landed “funny.” He skated to the judges’ table — memories of Tonya Harding slinging her skate up there in 1994 came flooding back — and after a few moments of discussion, withdrew from the competition. Amazing. The crowd was devastated, particularly because this was to be Plushenko’s last competition. Not the way he or the Russians wanted to see him go out.
Then came American Jeremy Abbott, known for falling on the biggest stage. So it was not surprising when Abbott went down early in his routine, landing hard on his right hip and sliding hard — like, hockey hard — into the boards. He stayed on the ice, his hand on his hip, so long that you were sure he was done. Then he dragged himself up, picked up his program, landed all the requirements, landed all his jumps, and landed an arena of new fans. The Russians, bereft of a hero just minutes earlier, were now all about Abbott. They clapped along with his music and cheered wildly when he finished. After two groups had skated, he was in first place. It wouldn’t last, but it was a moment to savor, and NBC is great at savoring.
(Abbott’s teammate, 19-year-old Jason Brown, led the field for a time, but that was before the top skaters took the ice. He wound up in sixth, nine spots ahead of Abbott. Not surprisingly, after seeing the team competition, Yuzuru Hanya was the day’s top skater.)
That’s a whole lot of drama in one sitting. But wait, there’s more! We turn now to women’s skeleton, which had its first two runs Thursday. Noelle Pikus-Pace should be a three-time Olympian but she missed the Turin Games when a runaway bobsled hit her during training, breaking her leg so badly the bone broke the skin. She rehabbed and came back for Vancouver, only to finish fourth by .1 seconds. She’s due some good luck to go with the talent. After Thursday’s first two runs, she was second, just behind Lizzy Yarnold of Britain.
Her teammate, Katie Uhlaender, also had to cope with the loss of her father. Former major league pitcher Ted Uhlaender was a farmer/rancher in Atwood, Kan., before his death in 2009. That sent Katie reeling into Vancouver, where she finished 11th. She was befriended by former downhill skier Picabo Street, and slowly came to terms with her father’s death. She wears his 1972 NL Championship ring around her neck when she races. She was in fourth after Thursday’s runs, just behind Russia’s Elena Nikitina.
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The other event on tap tonight, the women’s 1,000 speedskating, may get short shrift, given all those other great stories, but Zhang Hong’s gold medal win was historic. It was the first for China in speedskating, and a tremendous upset of the formidable Dutch team, who had six skaters in the top eight — but no gold.
And if NBC ignores the debut of Team USA, Team Russia and defending champion Team Canada in hockey, I’ll eat a puck. If none of the restaurants downtown open soon, I may have to eat a puck anyway.