The figure skating in Sochi was some of the best in recent Olympics. While there weren't any bitter, played-up-by-the-media sort of rivalries, this Olympics was the last major international competition for several famous, long-time skaters. The stakes were high and the up-and-comers, those who had only just began their own senior level careers, came to Russia hungry. One NBC commentator noted the disparity between oldies and newbies saying that the Sochi ladies’ competition was going to be a showdown between the Women (South Korea, Italy, and Japan) and the Girls (Russia, Canada, and the US). This set-up was repeated in the men’s, pair’s, and ice dancing events as well.
While there were stunning hellos from newcomers, it was the goodbyes from the veterans that were most poignant. For many of these skaters, this last Olympics for them was their third or even fourth.
And each goodbye was just as unique as the skaters themselves.
Some, like South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, said goodbye with the grace we’ve come to expect of them. They are consistent skaters who’ve reliably been at the top since they took to the senior level, and while neither successfully defended their Vancover gold medals, both Kim and the ice dancing team of Virtue and Moir, skated cleanly and respectfully received silver. They almost seemed relieved to find out they hadn’t gotten gold.
Then there was Evegny Pleshenko. The Russian men's powerhouse who I used to love to loathe. For me the Cold War still existed on ice as long as he skated (and the judging this year in all the events the Russians had a chance in proved it). He came out of retirement to skate in Sochi, his fourth trip to the Olympics. While he ensured that Russia got the gold in the Team competition, he withdrew from the individual men's competition at the start of his short program due to a herniated disc he aggravated during the warm-up minutes earlier. His withdrawal totally remapped the men's competition. Had he competed, I doubt he would have gotten gold--his team performances revealed that age had dulled the edge of the once-formidable, nearly unbeatable skater. Watching his face, contort with physical pain and psychological consternation as he left the ice, I felt sad. For the first time, I had a measure of respect for him. The decision to not compete for Mother Russia must have been hard. In his case, I think it was better to instantly retire here instead of compete and have a poor performance at the Olympics as his last.
But who resonated with me the most were two veteran skaters whom I’ve never really connected with before: American men’s skater, Jeremy Abbott and top Japanese ladies’ skater, Mao Asada. Both Abbott and Asada bombed their short programs at Sochi, disappointing themselves, their countries, and fans alike. And both returned to the rink the following night to have incredible once-in-a-lifetime, redeeming free skates that made their goodbye all the harder as they reminded us of what masterful performers they could be--perfectly weaving the technical components of skating with such artistry that you forgot to watch for whether they completed the correct number of rotations in spins or landed on the appropriate edge after a jump. They invited you to share in their final time on the ice and rejoice with them as they finished contributing to skating history (as competitors at least--they can become coaches and judges). Most of all, they embodied the truth for us that life is usually not about winning, but rather about making the best of a messy situation after you fall.
I will miss some of these skaters (Virtue and Moir in particular), but I took heart from all the various ways the veterans said goodbye. Each showed maturity and gave us insight into a sport that manages to weave both failure and triumph into something valuable that compels us as spectators to keep coming back year after year and be inspired by the twining of power and grace on ice.