GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Those hoping for medals encounter a wide spectrum of experience on this Olympic skating stage, and the three American ice dance teams — all of whom took that stage Tuesday one performance from a medal — lived every inch of it.
Maia and Alex Shibutani, long considered the next great American ice dancers, long in waiting to inherit the throne, won the bronze medal. Madison Chock and Evan Bates got inches too close and slipped into the devastation that comes with a fall in a sport that simply doesn’t allow them. And Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue committed tiny on-ice crimes that cost them a four-year sentence to that most gutting of Olympic prisons — a fourth-place finish. This stage turns skaters into the briefest of players, subjects their legacies to seconds, leaves the public’s memory of them to a moment. All three of those teams will be remembered, one for its glory, another for its agony, and still another for its proximity to both but departure with neither.
The Shibutanis cried tears of joy after their short dance Monday, which left them just out of third. Alex said he cried on the bus to the free dance Tuesday, overwhelmed with the emotions of the opportunity — and, though he didn’t admit it, perhaps the pressure of it all.
The Shibutanis set their free skate to Coldplay’s “Paradise” to symbolize the next step in their skating progression. A few years ago, after a meteoric rise and slow plunge back to earth, the Shibutanis skated to Coldplay’s “Fix You” — willing themselves to fix what they saw as a cracked career trajectory. They did and chose “Paradise” to signal the next, more encouraging time in their careers. This, it seems, is that time.
They already had a bronze medal, one earned in the team competition, where they skated that free skate well. They skated it better Tuesday, and instead of crying when it was over, Alex stood and pumped his fists — not yet sure of their finish, but sure it would be good.
In the end, it was enough for bronze. Dynamic Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won gold, reclaiming their place atop the discipline after finishing first at the Vancouver Games in 2010 before settling for silver in Sochi. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France took silver, less than a point behind the winners.
“I’m glad that our training allowed us to focus on what we needed to do,” Alex Shibutani said, “but also use the emotion to lend itself to really the best we’ve ever skated.”
Hubbell and Donohue edged the Shibutanis by two hundredths of a point at nationals. For some time, they were the tall ones, the third American pair, the ones trying to catch up. They finished third at three straight U.S. championships, enough that before the 2018 competition, Donohue told reporters he simply couldn’t put another U.S. championship bronze medal around his neck. Tuesday, he would have done anything for bronze.
Hubbell and Donohue have developed a reputation for on-ice steam. Their free dance carries more sex appeal than most, oozing with chemistry and percolating tension that sent Twitter into frenzy as their countrymen watched at home.
But early in the free skate, Donohue stumbled through some twizzles, the comical name for traveling turns. At that moment, Hubbell admitted later, they both allowed themselves to think the podium was already gone. At that point, had they skated perfectly the rest of the way, it didn’t have to be.
But at the end of their otherwise smoldering free skate, as the pair moved through a choreographic twizzle sequence that brought Donohue to his knees, he lost his balance. He put his hands down for a moment — a one-point deduction.
When he met reporters afterward, he said he had been replaying the move since it happened. He also said he didn’t have an explanation.
“Too many little errors that gave away those technical points,” Hubbell said. “. . . We kind of knew right when we finished we had given it away. It’s a pretty hard feeling.”
Five points separated them from the Shibutanis. But that, and a few more small mistakes, left them four years to wonder what more they must do to get to the podium, instead of what comes after they get there.
While the Shibutanis celebrated, while Hubbell and Donohue cringed at their proximity, Americans Chock and Bates sobbed.
The emerging Americans, who had come so close at nationals and made their first Olympics as a pair, had planned their program for just this moment. They chose “Imagine” by John Lennon, honed an emotional skate that was well received all year, one their coach, Igor Shpilband, thought would be able to help them vault the four pairs they needed to jump to hit medal position here.
A couple off the ice and on it, Chock and Bates pushed through Chock’s lingering foot injury — which could require surgery after this — to start a beautiful, hopeful, passionate program. Then suddenly, when entering a combination spin they had so little trouble with Shpilband had never even thought to keep an eye on it, they were on the ground. Falls in ice dancing are rare. At the Olympics, falls are unheard of.
“I think we just clicked blades,” Bates said. “. . . One moment things were going exactly how we wanted to, then next moment, just in a flash, disaster struck.”
Chock was still in tears a half-hour later. Bates held her, told her to take her time, and ultimately fielded most of the questions that came their way.
“We were so close. We were in position to potentially be on the podium,” said Chock, choking back tears. “As soon as that happened, we knew there was no way.”