published Monday, February 17th, 2014

Wiedmer: Sochi Games creating great USA memories

If you allow yourself to ignore the oppressive government that drew these Winter Olympics to Sochi...and the anti-gay mandates of Vladimir Putin,the former KGB officer turned Russian president ... and the mirage that is a happy, prosperous Sochi rather than the impoverished, repressed community that's been temporarily hidden from the rest of the world, well, it's been a pretty good Games so far.

Especially if you're an American, though that's almost always superior to being from any other country, regardless of how the Red, White and Blue is faring athletically.

Still, to see our USA hockey team outlast the Russians 3-2 on Saturday was to take at least the briefest of strolls down memory lane, to 1980, and Lake Placid, N.Y., and that singular moment when our entire country believed in miracles after watching our fuzzy-cheeked collegians and amateurs stick it to the USSR's polished pros in an Olympic semifinal.

Yes, our guys are as professional as their's now, somewhat sadly so. They may still be our enemy, but they no longer seem an Evil Empire so much as an evil elf, more mischievous than monstrous. Yet beating them at their favorite sport was still loads of fun, if only for the opportunity to revisit the Miracle on Ice of 34 years ago.

But it was far from the only enjoyable moment to be an American over the first week of these Games. It might not even have been the best moment.

For all those Winter X-game devotees who weren't even around in 1980, there was the medal sweep by Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper in slopestyle skiing. In one of those stories Hollywood might even ignore as being too improbable to believe, the 22-year-old Christensen was a wildcard selection by the coaches.

But that was by far the least emotional part of the story. While Christensen was training in New Zealand last summer, his 67-year-old father J.D. died of heart failure back home in Utah. Years before that, Joss had once broken both ankles at the same time and had been forced to overcome knee surgery two years ago. Beyond that, his mother, Debbie, didn't have the money to travel to Sochi until friends and family cobbled together $10,000 and some serious air miles less than a week before Friday's final.

Then there was the trick Joss unveiled during his big run -- a switch triple 1260 -- that he'd learned just three days earlier.

Yet he somehow pulled it all off perfectly to shock the slopestyle world and make good on something he'd told his father before he headed off to New Zealand: "I'm gonna do this for you, Dad."

Christensen should be starring in Kleenex ads any day now.

Unless he's passed over for 36-year-old skier Bode Miller or skeleton silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace.

Miller wasn't yet three years old when the Miracle on Ice took place, but by 1998 he was representing USA on the slopes at the Nagano Olympics, the first of his five Games. He won two silvers at the 2002 Games and his first gold in 2010. His bronze medal on Sunday's Super-G course made him the oldest medalist ever in Alpine skiing and brought a few tears as he hugged his wife Morgan, who's a professional volleyball player.

"Today was one of the days where the medal really did make the difference for me," Miller told reporters as he recalled his younger brother Chelone, who might have reached these games as a snowboarder had he not died last year of an apparent seizure.

"Losing my brother this last year was really hard ... everything felt pretty raw and pretty connected. It was a lot for me."

Yet no USA Olympian has turned in a more splendid, memorable blend of raw and connected than the 31-year-old Pikus-Pace.

An early favorite to medal in the 2006 Games, her bid was cut short before it began when a four-man bobsleigh malfunctioned and crashed into her, breaking her leg less than four months before that year's opening ceremony.

Then came 2010 in Vancouver, when she missed bronze by one-tenth of a second.

Though heartbroken, Pikus-Pace quit the sport. She became a mom, daughter Lacee arriving first, then son Traycen. But after that came a miscarriage. She was momentarily lost, emotionally crushed in a way only those who've experienced such heartbreak can understand.

But her husband Jansen had an idea. She should give the skeleton one more try. Recalling his words, she told NBC, "And we should do it as a family."

It was crazy. Pikus-Pace, two small children and husband living out of hotel rooms for months on end, trying to make, in her words, "This dream come true."

In one sense, it is the story of almost every Olympian. The story of an all-consuming goal and dream to have a medal placed around your neck, hopefully gold, but, if necessary, silver or bronze. After all, even third in the world's still pretty dang special.

So it came to one final run on Saturday, one last chance to make up for the broken leg and one-tenth of a second and all those nights in hotels changing diapers. She climbed on the sled her husband built for her and hoped for the best. When her run ended she was momentarily first before finishing second.

Afterward, as Summer Sanders -- who won two golds and four total swimming medals at the 1992 Summer Olympics -- fought back her own tears attempting to interview Pikus-Pace, the slider said of her improbable medal, "To have my kids here by my side, I want them to know they can do anything. Miracles can happen and dreams come true. Now I'm ready to hang it up and cheer them on."

With stories such as those, the 1980 USA hockey team may no longer be the last great miracle in dressed in red, white and blue.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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