- - Sunday, February 23, 2014

SOCHI, Russia — Leading up to the Winter Games in Sochi, the big questions surrounded security, hotel room conditions and stray dogs.

In the closing days of the Winter Games, the big questions were about speedskating’s woes, America’s overall medal count and, yes, stray dogs.

The Games closed Sunday, and the United States ranked second behind Russia with 28 medals — nine gold, seven silver, 12 bronze.

That total is a marked drop from the 37 medals — nine gold, 15 silver, 13 bronze — four years ago in Vancouver. Russia finished with 33 medals.

One of the biggest reasons for Team USA’s decline was that its speedskaters did not win a medal until the men’s 5,000-meter short-track team claimed a silver medal on the final night of competition. Four years ago, short- and long-track speedskaters collected 10 medals in Vancouver.

From controversy surrounding the speedskaters’ suits to discussion about how the team prepared for the Winter Games, every night became increasingly frustrating at both the short- and long-track venues.

J.R. Celski, expected to be one of Team USA’s short-track stars, garnered one silver medal. “It’s relieving to be leaving here with a medal,” he said.

In figure skating, also a source for medals over the years, the U.S. received its first Olympic gold medal in ice dancing with a historical feat by Meryl Davis and Charlie White but failed to win any medals in the men’s, women’s and pairs events.

Four years removed from Evan Lysacek’s gold medal performance in Vancouver, the United States did not have a woman or man on the figure skating medal podium for the first time since 1936. The United States did, however, win a bronze medal in the debut of the figure skating team event.

Neither the women’s nor the men’s hockey team was able to rise from silver medal performances in Vancouver past Canada for the gold in Sochi. The U.S. women lost a 3-2 overtime heartbreaker to Canada in the gold medal game. The men, who earlier in the Olympics won a thriller over host Russia, dropped a 1-0 game to Canada, sending them into a disappointing bronze medal game against Finland that ended with a 5-0 defeat.

Still, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said, “I don’t think it was a step back.

“We did have an experience with the speedskating team which wasn’t as strong as the last few Olympic Games,” Blackmun said. “If you look at things broadly, the medals are getting spread around more. The fact we are still [near the] top of the [total] medal table is indicative that things are alive and well in the U.S.”

One of the big reasons for the optimism is that American athletes had success in some of the newer additions to the Olympic program in action-style sports.

Sage Kotsenburg started by winning the first medal event of the Sochi Winter Games — the Olympic debut of men’s snowboard slopestyle — and Jamie Anderson followed by winning the women’s snowboard slopestyle.

Kotsenburg was not touted much before the Sochi Games because Shaun White was considered the top American, but now Kotsenburg is building a fan base of his own. Late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien brought Kotsenburg onto the show and presented the snowboarding star with a medal made of bacon.

Kotsenburg decided to unveil a trick just moments before his run. The move was so new that it didn’t have a name. Now it’s known as the Holy Crail. Appropriately for this new wave of sports, it got its name from a contest on Facebook.

David Wise won the debut of the men’s freestyle ski halfpipe event, and American men swept the medal podium for only the third time in Winter Olympics history with slopestyle skiing. Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper went 1-2-3 in the event’s Olympic debut.

Maddie Bowman added a gold medal in halfpipe skiing.

Although the snowboard halfpipe event has been around since 1998, it still falls into the world of action sports in the Olympics.

Kaitlyn Farrington won a gold medal for the United States in the snowboard halfpipe and shared the podium with fellow American Kelly Clark, who earned the bronze medal. For Clark, it was her third snowboarding medal in the Olympics, having won the gold in 2002 and a bronze in 2010.

Entering the Winter Games, there was a lot of discussion about how the U.S. skiers would fare, especially with the absence of Lindsey Vonn, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

The Americans fared well on the slopes as Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin won gold medals and Bode Miller earned a bronze.

Julia Mancuso, who entered the Sochi Olympics with a gold and two silvers, added a bronze medal to her collection in the women’s super combined.

Shiffrin was the reigning world slalom champion coming into Sochi, but at 18, she was just starting to garner a media following. Her victory in Sochi, which made her the youngest slalom champion in the Olympics in 30 years, should change that.

“I always dream of the best-case scenario and accept it if it doesn’t happen, but I’m really glad that it did today,” Shiffrin told reporters after her victory. “I’ve just got to keep going.

“It’s an amazing feeling to win an Olympic gold. It’s going to be something that I chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life, but my life is not over yet.”

Bobsled made some news as Lauryn Williams made a transition from the Summer Games to the Winter Games and won a silver medal with partner Elana Meyers, a former George Washington University softball player.

The two came within 0.10 of a second of beating a team from Canada for the gold medal. Williams was overshadowed in the run-up to Sochi by another track Olympian turned bobsledder, Lolo Jones, but ended up as the one leaving Sochi with a medal.

Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans finished right behind Meyers-Williams with a bronze medal. Also at bobsled, Steven Holcomb and Steve Langton fought for a bronze medal in an emotional performance in which Holcomb battled a calf injury but managed to medal. Holcomb, who piloted Team USA to its first gold medal in 62 years at the 2010 Olympics in the four-man, added a bronze medal Sunday.

In skeleton, Noelle Pikus-Pace came out of retirement and battled back from injuries to win a silver medal, and Matt Antoine took a bronze.

Erin Hamlin became the first American woman and the first U.S. singles luger to win an Olympic medal as she earned a bronze.

“It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least,” said Pikus-Pace, who brought her young children to the Olympics and was one of three mothers on the U.S. Olympic Team in Sochi. “You plan your whole life for one moment and it comes and goes and now it’s just a memory. Crossing that finish line and having that experience was more than I ever could have imagined. It surpassed my expectations, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

Although the overall medal count might not be as high as it was four years ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee said it was pleased that the team’s performance in Sochi marked the highest number of total medals in a Winter Games outside of North America. In Turin in 2006, the United States left with 25 medals.

One statistic that the USOC could not confirm was how many athletes would be bringing home stray dogs they found in Sochi. Photos of Kenworthy with several puppies went viral, and hockey’s David Backes and other Olympians might bring pups back to the States.

Kenworthy might not have won the gold, but he plans to bring home perhaps a bigger prize — four pooches. No amount of preparation could have readied him for that when he entered the Winter Games in Sochi.

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