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Where Does The U.S. Stand In The Olympic Medal Count?


In the first week of the Olympics in Sochi, it wasn't looking good for the Americans. Superstars who were expected to get gold didn't even get bronze. And overall, the U.S. was trailing in the medal count. And then today, with one competition, all of that turned around. The U.S. now has 12 medals, thanks to a sweep by American men in ski slopestyle. This is only the third time in Winter Olympics history that American men have so dominated the medal stand at any event.

NPR's Tamara Keith was watching, and joins us now. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Slopestyle, it's new to these games. We've already seen American medals in men's and women's snowboard, and now, as I've just said, ski slopestyle. Tell us about the winners.

KEITH: Joss Christensen from Park City, Utah, took the gold. Gus Kenworthy won silver, and Nicholas Goepper won bronze. The runs these guys had in competition were absolutely amazing to watch. They start off sliding on these rails, and then they do a series of jumps, where they just get massive air. They do wild flips and twists. They crisscross their skis in the air. And then, as the competition was ending, it was quite a site to see these very excited, young dudes wrapped in American flags as the results came in.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, quite exciting, especially after this last week, because let's talk about Shaun White, Shani Davis, Bode Miller. These men were expected to own the slopes at Sochi, and the ice. And none of them got so much as a medal. What happened?

KEITH: All three of them have won gold before, and they were expected to do well here in Sochi. Shaun White is snowboard halfpipe. Shani Davis does the thousand-meter speed skating competition. Bode Miller is in downhill skiing. They were expected to win gold again. U.S. speed skaters were supposed to be dominant, or at least competitive, and not so much so far - a lot of disappointments early on.

MONTAGNE: Well, Tamara, do you think perhaps the expectations were too high for some of these athletes?

KEITH: We, in the media and in the public, certainly do build people up. And just because you are a three-time medalist, it doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get a fourth. This is the Olympics. It's a moment in time. And all of the training and all of the expectations in the world can shift in just seconds. You know, course conditions could change. You could hit an edge wrong, or your muscle tightens at the wrong time. And, you know, even the very best people can have off-moments. And it turns out, for a while there, American athletes were just having bad days.

MONTAGNE: Even at the Olympics. Well, you know, also, these athletes are veterans, that we've been just speaking of. Are some people saying they're maybe just a little too old?

KEITH: There's been a lot of talk of that, that maybe these were legacy athletes. Many of them are possibly past their prime in their early 30s. You know, this is the crazy world of sports. These three guys who just won ski slopestyle, they were all born in the 1990s, and they're young. But there's this other element: The last time American men swept the medals, it was in snowboard halfpipe at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Back then, halfpipe was relatively new, and Americans dominated. Now slopestyle is new, and these young Americans swept it.

MONTAGNE: So, the Olympics are far from over. So who are you watching, going forward?

KEITH: We should be pretty good in bobsled. Driver Steve Holcomb is expected to do well in both the two-man and four-man bobsled competitions. And Mikaila Shifrin, she's an 18-year-old skier, possibly could win gold in giant slalom. Of course, by talking about this, we are putting high expectations on yet more athletes.

MONTAGNE: Yes. I'm knocking on wood. For them.

KEITH: Very good.

MONTAGNE: That's Tamara Keith, of NPR's Olympic team, in Sochi. Thanks very much.

KEITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.