Have you ever heard of an athlete whose heart is set on placing fourth?
Didn’t think so.
Fourth-place finishers were left out in the cold at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games while the gold, silver and bronze medalists celebrated on the podium.
“It’s devastating – I’m not going to lie,” said Team USA skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who missed a medal by a scant four-hundredths of a second.
“It’s almost the equivalent to being left at the altar. You’re about to get the ring and then it just didn’t work out and they walked away. You can’t be mad at them – you had a great time – but it just leaves you with this empty feeling.”
Snowboarder Hannah Teter knows that feeling as well as the flip side: how it feels to be full of joy.
Teter won the gold medal in women’s halfpipe at the Torino 2006 Games, the silver four years later in Vancouver and was on the cusp of another medal before dropping to fourth in Sochi.
“Fourth is pretty much the same as last,” Teter said, “because obviously the main goal is to be on the podium, so fourth is just a big old tease because you’re right there!”
Team USA won 28 medals in Sochi – nine golds, seven silvers and 12 bronzes – while eight fourth-place finishers became members of the “Just-Missed Club,” the group nobody joins on purpose.
Yet placing fourth is a fantastic motivator. It’s been called the wooden medal for good reason.
“That’s fuel for the fire for next time,” said Jessica Kooreman (nee Smith), who was fourth in the women’s 1,000-meter short track speedskating final in Sochi.
Her short track teammate, J.R. Celski, said placing fourth in the 1,500 became an integral part of his learning curve.
“I think the whole Sochi experience was difficult,” he said. “It put things into perspective for me about what it would take to really reach that next level. I am motivated to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself, and I will continue to fight until I get there.”
All seven individual athletes – Uhlaender, Teter, Kooreman and Celski – plus figure skater Gracie Gold, and snowboarders Faye Gulini (snowboardcross) and Shaun White (halfpipe) – are still competing in hopes of reaching the podium at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games in one year.
The eighth fourth-place performer for Team USA was the men’s ice hockey team, which could include some returning players if the NHL continues to participate.
“Let’s get back up there,” Teter said of the podium. “There’s no better feeling than standing up there.”
The bronze medalist in both the 1,500-meter and the men’s 5,000-meter relay in Vancouver, Celski hoped to upgrade both medals in Sochi. He was successful in the relay, but not in his individual race, which was his first scheduled event.
“It was a really tough thing to go through,” Celski said. “Having the podium slip away from me really gave me a lot to think about, but I remained optimistic as it was only the first distance out of four.”
Taking the lead about midway through the race, he said later that he made a tactical mistake by not pushing a relative slow pace.
Celski couldn’t stay in front, and got into trouble with about three laps to go. He was in fourth place when he bumped Great Britain’s Jack Whelbourne and lost momentum as Whelbourne went down.
“I got a little unlucky,” Celski said after the race. “But last time I benefitted and won the bronze because of some falls. Sometimes you’re on the good side of it, sometimes the bad.”
Celski, 26, lunged at the finish, losing the bronze by 0.562 seconds as well as his balance, causing him to fly into the mats.
Even though he did not win a medal, Celski is glad he was at least in contention instead of watching from the sidelines.
“That’s the point of going to the Games, to give yourself a chance at stepping on the podium,” he said. “and the only way to do that is to make the final.”
He also competed in the 1,000 and was sixth in the 500.
In his final race, he gained some redemption when Team USA won the silver medal in the men’s relay, the only medal for the country in either short track or long track.
“In a sense, I was relieved that we medaled in the relay,” he said. “That was our strongest showing in the competition leading up to the Games and we all wanted that for each other. We worked hard together, and to have it pay off felt good. I was disappointed to say the least with my individual showing in Sochi, so walking away with a something to show was nice.”
Celski took a 17-month break after Sochi and recently won a bronze medal in the 1,000 at a world cup in Dresden, Germany.
“This season has had its trials and errors,” he said. “That was the purpose of it for me mentally – to put myself in positions to learn and gain the experience I need to be successful next season. I feel like that process is going well, and minus a few setbacks early on in the season, overall it has been successful.”
After helping Team USA win the bronze medal in the inaugural Olympic team figure skating competition in Sochi, Gold placed fourth in singles.
That proved to be the first of many finishes just off the podium for Gold in major events.
She was fourth after the short program at the Iceberg Skating Place and fifth in the free skate, resulting in an overall fourth place. (However, Gold has a slim chance of being awarded a bronze medal if gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova of Russia is ensnared in the doping scandal.)
Gold went on to place fifth at the 2014 world vhampionships, then was fourth at the 2015 and 2016 world champs.
Her 2016 fourth-place finish was particularly galling because it was in Boston and she was first after the short program.
She told icenetwork.com, "I was floating, untethered – that’s the word I was kind of throwing out, and it was true. I wasn't looking ahead. I didn't have a game plan."
This season Gold, 21, continued to struggle. The defending U.S. champ was sixth at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which meant she missed the world team for the first time in her senior career.
She also split with her coach, Frank Carroll, and moved to Michigan to join Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein.
"As soon as nationals was over,” she told icenetwork.com, “I started looking at what I could do to fix the things I didn't like about my situation and my skating… I'm moving on, and I'm ready to get a jump on next season."
In order for Team USA to qualify for three spots in PyeongChang, Ashley Wagner, the reigning world silver medalist, U.S. champ Karen Chen and Mariah Bell must perform well at worlds. The top two placements must be equal to or less than 13.
"I'm ready. We have a year," Gold told icenetwork.com. "I have a solid game plan. Everyone is on the same page. It's literally going to be 365 days, full speed ahead."
OK, so maybe fourth place wasn’t so bad from Gulini’s perspective. She came into Sochi under the radar, with teammate Lindsey Jacobellis, the 2006 silver medalist, riding high.
Gulini was third in her semifinal to squeak into the six-person big final. But Jacobellis, who amassed a huge lead in her semi, crashed and was relegated to the small final, which she won to place seventh.
Gulini was caught behind the pack in the big final. Although she couldn’t overtake the top three finishers, she maneuvered into fourth.
“I’m happy with the way today went,” Gulini said after the race. “I had a tough season leading up to the Olympics. On this course it kind of seems just staying on your feet was important and I was able to do that pretty consistently. I’m happy with fourth. It is the Olympics, but being on the podium would have been nice.”
Gulini, 24, had two recent top-10 finishes in snowboardcross at world cups in Feldberg, Germany. This season she also finished 13th in Montafon, Austria, ninth at Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah and 11th in Bansko, Bulgaria.
Crossing the finish line in the 1,000 at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Kooreman felt “a little bit of every emotion: happy, sad and wondering what’s left in the tank for four years to come.”
Kooreman, 33, has no doubt it was better to be fourth than not make the final at all. “I’d rather say that I had a fighting chance,” she said.
Looking back on the whole Sochi experience, she’s thrilled she was able to reach her goal of becoming an Olympian after missing the team in 2010, but added, “There’s also a little bit of upset feeling that I did give everything I could to make it to that level and to just miss the podium, it leaves a stinger.”
Kooreman also raced in the heats of the 500 and was seventh in the 1,500. The 1,000 was her last set of races, having to advance through heats, quarters, semifinals and then the final.
“I took it one race at a time and I wanted to make sure that I left that Olympics with no regrets and nothing left in my system heading home,” Kooreman said.
She went into the final with even more determination, deciding to race from the front to make sure she was in control and “to not just sit and do nothing. Looking back, I probably went a little bit too all-in early and probably should have been a little bit more patient, but that’s part of being at the Games and the learning experience.”
Kooreman met with fans and sponsors after the race.
“Every single one of them was so happy for me being out there and knowing that I gave everything I had,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people are either like, ‘Awwww, you just missed it’ or ‘Awesome that’s great!’ I heard both from multiple people.
“For myself, I hear in my own head that I showed up to do everything I could that day. It was meant to be fourth. I can honestly look back and say I don’t have any regrets on the race. I gave my all and tried to represent the U.S. to the best of my ability and people are proud of being fourth and I’m happy with my result.
“Obviously I wish it was gold, but I guess that leaves the door open for the future and for better results.”
In September 2015, Kooreman married Mike Kooreman, a former speedskater and now speedskating program manager at the Utah Olympic Oval.
She said she had fleeting thoughts of retiring because she is getting older, but is still relatively new to the sport after switching from inline.
“I knew that I wasn’t finished,” Kooreman said. “I’m still learning and still improving and I didn’t want to give up yet, so it was kind of like, ‘OK, I did accomplish part of my goal, but not the whole thing. Hopefully, I’ll come through with a medal at the next Olympics.’”
Kooreman recently began training with a new coach, Lin Lin Sun, a 2010 gold medalist from China whom she previously raced against. She will compete in the world championships next month.
“In Sochi, I had the focus of making my dream come true and becoming an Olympian,” Kooreman said. “Now being an Olympian, it’s a completely different mindset. I’ve already seen what it’s like to be at the Olympics and knowing we’re one year away, it’s mindboggling to see how quickly a quadrennium can go by.”
Teter was not used to being the odd woman out. In Sochi, she was one of three previous Olympic gold medalists in women’s halfpipe and one of three members of Team USA.
After two runs, Kaitlyn Farrington of the U.S. was the surprise gold medalist, Torah Bright of Australia, the 2010 Olympic champ, was second and Kelly Clark, the 2002 gold medalist from Team USA, was third.
“It was awkward,” Teter said. “It was a definite bummer and it’s something I wasn’t used to, because the previous two Olympics, I’d done so well, so I thought for sure it was going to happen again.”
Teter had the highest score, 90.50, after the first run. But she was overtaken by the medalists’ scores on the second run while she posted a disastrous 26.75.
“One of the judges is one of my friends, and he said half the judges wanted to give me third, and half the judges wanted to give Kelly third, so that they’re deliberating in there for five minutes at least while we awkwardly sit on camera,” Teter said.
The fourth-place finish has propelled her toward PyeongChang. “That’s been on my goal list since the last Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think it would have been had I not finished fourth. I just don’t think I would have been so gung-ho, about it, like ‘Yeah, I’m going to the next one!’ It’ll be my fourth one, and it’s a lot of commitment, but I’m definitely driven this time around.”
Teter was third earlier this month in a world cup at Mammoth Mountain in California.
“It’s definitely a warm-up season,” she said. “There’s a lot of prep work going into next season because we’re going to start with a bang in December with four or five qualifiers right off the bat.”
After four years of training, Uhlaender had four runs at the Sanki Sliding Center in Krasnaya, Polyana, Russia. That’s about four miles lasting a total of just under four minutes. And it all came down to four-hundredths of a second.
“It’s quicker than you can blink,” Uhlaender said.
Uhlaender was competing in her third Olympic Games after placing sixth in Torino in 2006 and 11th in Vancouver.
Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain won the gold, Team USA’s Noelle Pikus-Pace took silver and Elena Nikitina of Russia claimed the bronze. Uhlaender went faster on each run, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Nikitina.
Still, Uhlaender was a good sport and attended Pikus-Pace’s medal celebration at USA House, where she was consoled by Dan Jansen. The former speedskater is well-versed in Olympic heartbreak after falling twice at the 1988 Games immediately following the death of his sister and placing fourth in 1992 before finally capturing a gold medal in 1994.
“His story parallels mine pretty well,” said Uhlaender, adding that in light of his eventual success, “I hope it does.
“I’m tired of being the sad story. I just want to go to Korea and I want to win a medal and have nothing but good things happen. I want to be the happy story.”
Uhlaender’s father, Ted, a former Major League Baseball player, died in 2009, a year before Vancouver. She’s had numerous surgeries and suffered a concussion in October 2013. Uhlaender’s brain did not have time to recover and she still had post-concussion syndrome while in Sochi.
Uhlaender told Jansen she was torn about continuing in the sport. “He was like, ‘Listen, you can’t look at it as another four years. Just take it one day at a time. It’s your own path to the podium. It’s not going to happen the way you think it should or the way other people think it should. It’s your energy, it’s your choice.’
“I can take it day by day and enjoy the journey, or I can get overwhelmed with the need for results.”
After Sochi, she underwent more surgeries. “It turned out I had no soft tissue in my hip and a hole in my ankle, so I had both of those repaired,” Uhlaender said.
She took two years off, returning for the 2015-16 season which was “more of dipping my toe in the water.” Uhlaender still placed 10th at the world championships.
“I came back this season in killer shape, ready to go,” she said. But Uhlaender was hospitalized for autoimmune hepatitis, in which the body’s immune system attacks the liver.
She missed six weeks of training and two world cups.
“I honestly thought I was dying at one point,” Uhlaender said. “The one nice thing is I was like, ‘OK, well if this is it, I’ve had a good run.’ I actually love my life and I felt blessed, so I wasn’t on my deathbed with regrets, and that’s how I’ve come out of it. I want to enjoy every moment of this journey, and it’s my choice to choose what energy I take into Korea and I’m going to bring positive energy. I’m determined to get myself on that podium.”
She was still ranked in the top 12 when she was released from the hospital, “which is awesome,” Uhlaender said, “but that’s not where I want to be. I want to be fighting for the top three spots.”
Uhlaender is currently training in Calgary for a few weeks on her own dime. She won’t compete at the world championships, but has a chance to qualify for next year’s U.S. world cup team by placing in the top four at the final world cup of the season in Korea on March 17.
“I didn’t step back from this season, because I’m kind of thinking that maybe all my bad luck’s happening now, and then Olympic year it’ll be great,” Uhlaender said. “I have every title you can win in the sport except one. The Olympic Games are a different beast. It’s not like winning an overall world cup. It’s not like winning the world championships. Everything has to come together at the right moment.”
Uhlaender’s Sochi story may not yet be over. History could bump her up from fourth place to bronze medalist.
Nikitina was briefly suspended as part of the Russian doping scandal.
“The samples are proven to have been tampered with, which shows the hosting country for the Olympic Games conspired to cheat,” Uhlaender said. “Whether or not the individual athletes had knowledge of it or not doesn’t matter. There was cheating happening, and I think allowing the Russians to keep the medals of the samples that were tampered with is essentially allowing them to get away with cheating, so I hope the right thing is done.”
But, she added, “I don’t have the time or the effort to put any emotion into it because I’ve moved on.”
U.S. Men’s Ice Hockey Team
Jim Johannson has finished fourth both as a Team USA player in 1992 and as team leader in Sochi, and he’d like to get that out of his system.
Finland blanked Team USA 5-0 in Sochi in the bronze-medal game.
“There was a lot of disappointment that night, and quite honestly a little bit of embarrassment because we obviously did not play well,” said Johannson, who also played for Team USA in 1988 and is assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “That was a bad night for us all the way around and left a little bit of a sour taste. They don’t want to live it again.”
The NHL, NHL Players Association, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee have still not determined if professional players will represent their countries in the PyeongChang Games.
If the pros do return, Johannson said young athletes who have played for Team USA in world juniors or other tournaments will be just as motivated as veterans to compete for the final roster.
The last time Team USA reached the podium was 2010, losing to Canada 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game. That loss was just as painful as the one in Sochi – maybe more.
“We played so well in the game, to lose in overtime, the suddenness with that hits you pretty hard and pretty fast,” Johannson said. “I think because of the way that game was, it added that much more of a disappointment and I think a lot of guys left the rink thinking that we should have won.”
Even though Team USA left Sochi empty-handed, Johannson said the experience was worthwhile.
“You always want a chance to play in medal games,” he said. “From an athlete’s perspective, you want to play in those games and from an administrative perspective, it’s good development for our players. Regardless of the result, there’s a benefit that derives from it. It just comes out either with enjoyment – or lack of enjoyment.”
The pioneering snowboarder went into Sochi hoping to win his third straight halfpipe title and also compete for the first time at the Games in slopestyle.
However, he withdrew from slopestyle citing a potential for injury and then was shut out in halfpipe.
White twice came up short on the Yolo, the trick invented by Sochi gold medalist Iouri “I-Pod” Podladtchikov of Switzerland. White also lost to a pair of Japanese teenagers.
White, 30, told the “TODAY” show during the one-year-out festivities, “Obviously not performing the way I’d like in Sochi really inspired me and I got re-focused, recalibrated and I’m back at it.”
He said he’s been asked, “When did you get over Sochi?” “I’m like, ‘I didn’t; you don’t.’ To be honest, it’s like falling off the bike and you have the little scar from it. It’s a part of you. It’s something to learn from and I’m definitely learning and I’m back.”
White won the most recent world cup at Mammoth Mountain and will compete in the upcoming test event in PyeongChang.