PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – The Norwegians ran away with the medal count. The Russians got busted for doping, again. The home team, South Korea, won hearts.
And the Minnesotans? They just won. As the Pyeongchang Olympics close out a 17-day run Sunday, Minnesota athletes have collected three gold medals and a bronze, made all kinds of history and contributed significantly to the United States’ fourth-place showing in the medal standings.
Through Saturday, the Americans had won nine gold medals and 23 overall. The count included unprecedented golds by cross-country skier Jessie Diggins of Afton and curling skip John Shuster, a Chisholm native. The U.S. never had won a gold medal in either sport and had only one medal of any color in each.
The U.S. women’s hockey team, whose eight Minnesota-linked players include seven natives, beat Canada to win its first Olympic gold medal in 20 years. Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn — who still lists Buck Hill Ski Team as her home club, along with the slightly more glamorous Ski & Snowboard Club Vail — earned bronze in the downhill, in what is likely to be her final Olympics.
If Minnesota were a country, it would be tied with Italy for 12th place in the number of gold medals won here. It has more golds than China and the OAR — the awkward acronym applied to the 169 Russian athletes allowed to compete here — put together. China’s population of 1.4 billion people produced a single gold medalist, short-track speedskater Wu Dajing. Russia has 144 million people and got one gold, from figure skater Alina Zagitova.
Minnesota, with 5.5 million people, put 22 natives or residents on the U.S. team and earned a third of the country’s golds. We usually don’t like to brag about such things, but maybe just this once.
Thanks for noticing
Even the New York Times wrote about Minnesota’s prominence, which is a whole lot better than being congratulated for our grape salad. The three golds won by Minnesotans have the added distinction of being among the most celebrated performances at the Winter Games.
Diggins clipped Sweden’s Stina Nilsson with an epic stretch run in the women’s cross-country team sprint, which she won in tandem with Kikkan Randall. The grit she showed in chasing down one of the best sprinters in the world earned her a wide swath of respect, as well as the votes of her peers. American athletes elected Diggins to carry the U.S. flag at Sunday’s Closing Ceremony, where she will lead the American delegation into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium.
Also, bonus Minnesota points on that race. The NBC call of “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!’’ came from Chad Salmela of Duluth, a former cross-country skiing coach at St. Scholastica. Video of the finish has become an internet sensation, viewed more than 1.3 million times.
The U.S. women’s hockey team has 23 players, and more than a third have Minnesota ties. Several of them supplied the heroics in Thursday’s 3-2 shootout victory over Canada, which brought the Olympic gold to the southern side of the northern border for the first time since 1998.
Forward Gigi Marvin of Warroad scored the first goal of the shootout, setting the tone. Defenseman Sidney Morin of Minnetonka assisted on the first goal of the game, by Hilary Knight, and Gophers senior Kelly Pannek of Plymouth set up Monique Lamoureux-Morando’s slick breakaway goal that tied the score with less than seven minutes remaining.
Goaltender Maddie Rooney of Andover stopped Canada’s last chance in the shootout, stoning Meghan Agosta in a very precocious performance for someone who is 20 years old and a junior at Minnesota Duluth. Bonus Minnesota points here, too, for Rooney’s magnificent mask. The backplate features the state’s silhouette rendered in stars and stripes, plus the Duluth Lift Bridge; it was created by mask artist Todd Miska of Stacy, Minn.
Two former Gophers called the shots from behind the bench: head coach Robb Stauber (Medina) and associate head coach Brett Strot (Maple Grove).
The Minnesotans even inspired other Minnesotans. Shuster’s team played a series of must-win games after losing four of its first six in the Olympic round robin. Before their semifinal against Canada, Shuster and teammates Tyler George, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo of Duluth — plus the token Wisconsinite, Matt Hamilton — watched the third period, overtime and shootout of the women’s hockey game.
“Watching our friends from the women’s USA hockey team, with so many two- and three-time Olympic veterans, get it done really just showed us that anything is possible,’’ said Shuster, who now lives in Superior, Wis., but is a Chisholm native and longtime Duluth resident. “We saw how much they enjoyed it.’’
Even more Minnesotans contributed to the Americans’ 10-7 upset of Sweden on Saturday in the gold medal game for men’s curling. Among those Shuster credited were USA Curling sports psychologist Carly Anderson of Edina and coach Phill Drobnick of Duluth. He also gave props to the huge contingent of family and friends who traveled to Pyeongchang and turned the Gangneung Curling Centre into the far eastern branch of the Duluth Curling Club.
The big picture
Not all Minnesotans are on board with the chest-thumping. Vonn bristled at the notion that the U.S. underachieved, viewing the counting as a crass pursuit that misses the point of the Olympics.
The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Olympic Committee projected its athletes would win 37 medals at these Games. It won 28 medals at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and a then-Winter Olympic record of 37 at the Vancouver Games in 2010. If the count remains at 23, it would be the lowest number of medals for the U.S. at a Winter Olympics since it won 13 in the 1998 Nagano Games.
Norway leads the medal count with 38, the most ever won by a single country in the Winter Olympics. Canada (29) and Germany (28) are second and third, while Norway and Germany are tied with 13 golds each.
“I think the expectation of winning gold medals is pretty out of whack,’’ Vonn said. “I think we need to be proud of all our athletes for how much they’ve put in to be here. Medals aren’t necessarily what the Olympics are all about. It doesn’t respect what the athletes put in.’’
Still, when your people are winning them, it feels pretty darn good. The U.S. has an opportunity to add two more medals Sunday, in four-man bobsled and in women’s cross-country skiing.
Among the starters in that cross-country race, the 30-kilometer mass start classic, is Diggins. In addition to her gold medal, the first Olympic cross-country medal of any color ever won by a U.S. woman, she has three fifth-place finishes and one sixth-place finish in five races.
The 30k isn’t Diggins’ strongest event, but as Shuster said, anything is possible. Especially at these Olympics, for those who have Minnesota on their passports.