Julie Chu carries the American flag as part of the Closing Ceremony at Fisht Olympic Stadium on Feb. 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
The United States entered the Sochi Games with high hopes, and when Team USA marched out of the Closing Ceremony on Sunday night, it was 28 medals stronger with a very bright future ahead.
The 28 medals are the most for a U.S. team at an Olympic Winter Games held outside North America, having won 37 in 2010 and 34 in 2002. The U.S. is also one of five nations to earn at least 20 medals and one of six nations to win at least eight gold medals, which is telling to the nearly unforeseen parity that has characterized these Games.
It is a fitting context for a team – and a nation – that embraces diversity, growth and the incredibly competitive world of sport.
“The whole level of competition across the world – the diversity of the medals, the diversity of the performers – is growing. It’s a great thing for winter sports and for the Olympic Movement,” said Alan Ashley, USOC chief of sport performance and U.S. chef de mission. “I look at all the different disciplines, and it makes it more fun for all of us – that we have that new challenge. That’s what competition is all about.”
Americans won nine gold medals – matching the total in 2010 and 2006 and one off the record set in 2002 – and finished second in the overall medal count ahead of Norway, which was third with 26 medals (11 golds). Russia added four medals in the final day of competition to top the overall and gold medal charts, solidifying what has been a remarkable Games for the host nation by any measure.
"Our experience has been tremendous,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. “This is one of the best produced, best organized, most smoothly functioning Games that we’ve ever been a part of.”
In addition to the spectacular venues and enthusiastic volunteers, Blackmun noted, “Obviously, at the top of our list are the great performances by our athletes on the field of play and more importantly, the character they demonstrate in competition. Things are alive and well in the United States and we’re very proud of everything our athletes have accomplished here.”
Overall, 61 U.S. athletes contributed to the medal count, including 37 first-time Olympic winter medalists. Of the 15 sport disciplines, the U.S. brought home hardware in nine, making arguably the biggest impact in the new medal events that debuted in Sochi. Team USA athletes claimed 25 percent of the 36 new medals up for grabs, highlighted by gold medal-winning performances in men’s and women’s halfpipe skiing and slopestyle snowboarding, and a historic sweep of the men’s slopestyle skiing podium – only the third by a U.S. team in Olympic Winter Games history.
“There has been a lot of success with the new events in Sochi and that will be encouraging moving forward,” said Ashley. “I would love to see us continue to look at new opportunities. They are exciting, bring new athletes in and continue to help the Games evolve in a very positive way.”
While the U.S. clearly shined in snowboarding and freestyle skiing, it also achieved momentous podium finishes in many of the traditional events, most notably in sliding sports. Erin Hamlin became the first American to medal in singles luge, breaking a 34-year German-Austrian hold on the women’s luge Olympic podium. Team USA athletes also proved their mettle in men’s and women’s skeleton, taking home Olympic hardware for the first time since 2002.
The U.S. women’s bobsled team also made history with two sleds on the podium, extending its medal-winning streak to four consecutive Games, which leads all nations. On the men’s side, the U.S. ended a 62-year medal drought in the two-man event and returned to the four-man podium to give the U.S. bobsled team four medals overall, matching the previous all-time high from 1932, when the Games were hosted on home soil. Overall, the U.S. earned seven sliding medals in Sochi – the most for any Games held outside the U.S.
But perhaps nowhere was the blend of veteran and emerging talent more evident than on the slopes of Rosa Khutor, as Mikaela Shiffrin, 18, and Bode Miller, 36, became the youngest and oldest athletes to land on the alpine skiing podium in Sochi with gold and bronze medals in women’s slalom and men’s super-G.
The U.S. figure skating team also saw its share of firsts in Sochi, where Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first Americans to win Olympic ice dance gold. These Games also featured the debut of the figure skating team event, in which eight U.S. athlete contributed to Team USA’s bronze medal.
Continuing the trend from the London 2012 Olympic Games, the U.S. women continued to dominate the medal chart, earning 13 medals (4 golds, 4 silvers, 5 bronzes), plus contributed to two mixed gender medals (1 gold, 1 bronze) – the most of any nation.
“I think the biggest thing when I think about the U.S. is equality in sports,” said four-time Olympic medalist Julie Chu, who was selected as Team USA’s flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony after leading the U.S. women’s ice hockey team to the silver medal. “We’re very proud of that and the growth in women’s sport. The more images we can put out of strong, confident women, that’s what we want for our youth.”
If the Sochi Games are any indication of Team USA’s faculty to inspire the next generation of American athletes, the new era looks bright.
“There are always times at the Olympic Games when you wish we could have done better, but there are just as many times when a whole new generation of athletes surprise you,” said Ashley. “That is the beauty of the Games. It’s one of the most fantastic things to happen for us as a nation. It’s been a special opportunity and I’m really happy where we stand.”