BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you grew up watching the Winter Olympics. The visualization techniques and breathing exercises do only so much. You can talk to coaches, sports shrinks and past Olympians, but for many, nothing can really prepare you for the Olympics: the magnitude, the spectacle, the scale, the stakes.
“It is different,” said Jaelin Kauf, moments after her Olympic debut ended in disappointment. “You do have it in the back of your head: This is the Olympics. This is the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest stage.”
The U.S. women’s moguls team came to the PyeongChang Games with high hopes. They thought at least a couple of Americans could wind up on the podium. After all, Kauf was ranked No. 1 in the world and the other three had been skiing well. Instead, small errors kept all of them out of Sunday’s finals and for the first time since 2006, the U.S. team failed to medal in the event.
“I think it’s disappointing as a team,” said Keaton McCargo, an eighth-place finisher who was two spots away from reaching the medal round. “I think we had the potential for any of us to be on the podium today. We all just made little mistakes that cost us.”
But it’s also easy for them all to find the silver lining. Kauf, who finished in seventh, one spot away from making the medal round, is 21 years old. Morgan Schild, who posted the competition’s third-highest score in the qualification round, is 20. And Tess Johnson, who finished in 12th in the second of three final rounds, is all of 17 and has been on the national team for three years.
“I’m the oldest. I’m 22,” McCargo said. “So I feel old.”
The team of first-time Olympians all came to PyeongChang with high hopes, sure, but also an understanding that not one of them really knew what to expect. It became clear quickly that this stage is different, like going from a high school recital to Madison Square Garden. Schild said Friday’s qualifying round “was definitely a nerve-wracking situation for all of us.”
“We saw the rings; we saw the press; we the huge grandstands,” she said. “That was pretty intimidating.”
All four still managed to advance into Sunday’s finals — three rounds in which the field is culled from 20 skiers to 12 to six. Kauf entered with the biggest target on her back, having found the podium at her past four competitions and reaching the top of the world rankings. She was also the last one eliminated, bumped out of the top six by the round’s final skier, her run score of 76.03 just 0.78 away from advancing.
Most the competitors had found their families, by the time the event’s final skiers competed for medals with France’s Perrine Laffont winning gold by edging out Canada’s Justine Dufour-Lapointe, the defending Olympic champion. The Americans were still processing their disappointment, taking mental notes they hope to use in the future.
“It’s so much bigger than what we usually compete on,” McCargo said. “We compete in World Cup. We compete against the same athletes at those events, but it’s in front of our friends and family and people you don’t know.”
With the Olympics, sometimes you don’t know until you know. Four of the event’s six finalists, in fact, had Olympic experience — a total of six Winter Games among them. And even with Sunday night’s disappointment still raw, each of the young Americans could appreciate that this PyeongChang trip served as giant learning experience.
The entire journey has filled with both thrills and pressures, sometimes not perfectly balanced. A bar back in Telluride, Colo., McCargo’s hometown, named a gin drink after her. “I was like, that’s so cool,” she said. “Then I was like, ‘Whoa, I have to really do well because they made this drink.’”
With her dreams of an Olympic medal deferred, Kauf quickly found her family in the gallery at Phoenix Snow Park late Sunday night. They exchanged long embraces, and no one seeming bothered by the frigid temperature or the snow that was suddenly falling fast and thick. Kauf wasn’t yet able to say much to them, but she called her boyfriend, fellow freestyle skier Jeremy Cota, who reminded her this was only first Olympic experience.
“We are still learning a lot — about ourselves, about our skiing,” Kauf told reporters later. “I think moving forward in the next few years, we’ll be really strong.”
Each hopes to be back on the same stage in four years, experienced and ready. The Olympics, after all, are an experience that you can’t always prepare for, but one you can learn from.
“You have to move on and look in the future,” McCargo said. “I think there’s so much promise. I don’t think this is the end.”
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