The Lesson of Sochi 2014: Figure Skating Takes Grit, Not Just Grace

Skaters like Adelina Sotnikova, Mao Asada, Ashley Wagner, and Jeremy Abbott reminded fans that sometimes the best Olympic stories are about athletes with something to prove.

“Redemption” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in figure skating—sports reporters have used it more times in this Olympics than I could even begin to count.

But in the end, figure skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics really was about redemption. This year’s event was full of occasions when no other word would do.

There was Jeremy Abbott of the U.S. getting back up after a horrible fall, to skate the short program of his life. There was Italy’s Carolina Kostner winning her first medal after being shut out at two previous Olympics—the first Olympic medal ever for an Italian singles skater. There was Denis Ten of Kazakhstan, leaping from ninth in the short program to third after the long, to capture bronze (also a first for his country). There was Ashley Wagner of the U.S., staying on her feet and proving to her detractors, once and for all, that she deserved that trip to Sochi.

There was top Japanese skater Mao Asada, after a bitterly disappointing short program, roaring back with a brilliant long program, complete with triple axel, and moving up from 16th to 6th.  Tears of joy ran down her face when she struck her ending pose, and skating fans everywhere (including yours truly) flocked to Internet skating forums and confessed to crying with her.

And there was Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova, frustrated at being stuck in the shadow of teammate Julia Lipnitskaia, who ultimately channeled that frustration into a gold-medal-winning skate. When Lipnitskaia was tapped to skate both portions of the team event, earlier in the Games, Sotnikova said, “I got really angry. I decided I will get a medal in the individual event.”

As if going for the Understatement of the Year Award, she added, “I did it.”

Of course, many would prefer it not to be that way. Skating viewers—like viewers of any Olympic sport—tend to gravitate to the feel-good stories, to the athletes who soar to the medal podium without showing the blood, sweat, tears, and bitter feelings that it took to get there. Every Olympics has a few of those stories. Look at the two light, joyous, effortless-looking skates by American ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as they captured the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in ice dance. For some, this was the feel-good story of the Sochi Games, as the skaters who’ve been compared to Disney characters made history and were feted by the media.

Yet in this beautiful but brutal sport, Disney stories are relatively rare; stories of unrewarded struggle are much more common. For instance, Lipnitskaia, who captured hearts in the team event, broke them in the individual event, collapsing under the weight of expectations and finishing a disappointing fifth. Watching her confidently help lead the Russian team to gold, some thought she was an unstoppable force of nature. Many forgot she was a 15-year-old girl with a limited amount of energy, still dealing with a growing and changing body; as NBC Sports commentator Johnny Weir pointed out, her jumps have recently gotten bigger, which seemed to throw her off when she got too close to the boards. So the role of the dark horse, of the real threat to gold-medal favorite Kim Yu-na, went to her teammate instead.

And as in other sports—maybe even more than in other sports—there’s griping, nitpicking, complaining. Much of it comes from fans, who tend to lament the days of the 6.0 scoring system and the loss of reliable skaters like Michelle Kwan—forgetting sometimes that today’s technical requirements are much higher than those of yesterday.

This is especially true for the men, which helps explain the two messy skates by Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Patrick Chan that took gold and silver respectively. “If this represented progress in men’s skating, it is dubious progress indeed,” opined Liz Clarke of the Washington Post. But it’s also true for the ladies: A typical Kwan program, with triple-double combinations instead of triple-triples, would have come fairly low in the standings here.

And the griping comes from other quarters as well. The skating community was divided over Sotnikova’s win. Former Olympians Paul Wylie, Tara Lipinski, and Scott Hamilton were on board with it; their fellow former Olympians Kurt Browning and Dick Button, not so much. All agreed that—as explained during NBC’s broadcast—Sotnikova had the highest technical content, and most agreed that she skated with exuberance and flair, but some still thought Kim or Kostner skated better. Meanwhile, some reporters are diligently trying to stir up controversy over the judging, as they do every four years—as if it were their Olympic duty.

It’s easy, especially at the Olympics, to love the undisputedly deserving victors and the clear and clean-cut victories, to the point where anything messy or complicated seems upsetting. But skating, under all the smiles and sequins, is a sport—and sports are frequently messy, complicated, and full of drama.

Which is why these redemption stories mean so much. They serve as a reminder, sometimes an unwanted one, that perfection and ease and grace are not all that matter; that falling down happens to everyone, and that getting back up is what shows true courage. So while we applaud Meryl Davis and Charlie White, let’s throw in a cheer for Asada and Abbott and all the others who did just that. And while we’re at it, let’s hope for a bright future for Lipnitskaia and the others dealing with disappointment—because, as many learned from this year’s Games in Sochi, the victories that come after the failures are the sweetest.