Karen Chen finished up her free skate and put her hands to her head. Her Olympics were over, and she knew it wasn’t good enough. Four years of buildup, of expectations since PyeongChang and she had faltered on the triple loop not once, not twice but three times at the 2022 Winter Olympics, costing her any chance at a medal.
Chen finished in 13th place. She’s 22 years old, young in human years but not in figure skating. She’ll be 26 when the next Olympics roll around. Her teammate Mariah Bell, the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to participate in an Olympics since 1928, is just 25. Opportunities of a lifetime don’t come around too often.
“I’m definitely beating myself up over it,” Chen said after her short program. “I know I can do it. I’ve done it so many times.”
Chen is far from alone in her frustrations. Landing a difficult jump or trick in practice is one thing. Doing it in the Olympics on the world stage, with family and friends watching and the weight of an entire country on one’s shoulders is another.
“I was rolling around like a sausage for two days,” said Russian Olympic Committee cross-country skier Denis Spitsov, who was so nervous before winning gold in the 4x10km relay to the point that he was shaking.
Many Olympians have other domestic and international competitions in between the four years, other chances to showcase their talents. But there is no stage quite like the Olympics themselves.
“This is the biggest stage of biathlon so the bigger the race, the bigger the kick in the guts,” said Campbell Wright, the second New Zealander to participate in biathlon at the Winter Games. “But also the bigger the success if you do well.”
'A life project'
Fair or not, an Olympic golden moment can last a lifetime.
“At the Olympic Games we have one race in four years,” said Austria’s Benjamin Karl, who won gold in the slalom. “Only one chance to win and it's a life project, and it's become reality."
Some athletes participate in multiple disciplines of their respective sports, giving them more chances to win and less stress over one event being the only opportunity they have to make an Olympic impression. A cross-country skier may earn medals across different distances. An alpine skier may compete in slalom, giant slalom and combined.
But for the majority of Olympians with one specialty, like Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury in moguls, the pressure is compounded. Kingsburgy won silver, his third medal across three Olympics.
"Our sport is so much about performance on one single day and we have one event at every Games, so it's not easy,” Kingsbury said. “We don't have another chance or another day to have another try. It's everything on one day, and I'm proud that I've been able to do that for 12 years."
Added Dutch speed skater Kjeld Nuis, who won both the 1000m and 1500m events in PyeongChang but only competed in the 1500m in 2022: "It's the most important race in four years. It's a bit of a cliché, but it really is. You can feel the tension of the athletes.”
The high stakes didn’t get to Nuis, who won the 1500m in Olympic-record time. Nor did they get to Clement Noel of France, who won gold in slalom after a fourth place finish in PyeongChang.
“It's not often that you are able to win a medal in the Olympic Games,” Nuis said. “It's one shot — one minute and 40 seconds. One shot every four years.”
Not every Olympian has gold medal expectations, but the weight of training and preparing for one moment every four years is enough to elicit emotions.
Bonus points for coming from a country like Monaco, a city-state on the French-Riviera with a population of under 40,000. Rudy Rinaldi and Boris Vain not only qualified for the two-man bobsled, but they finished sixth, the best ever finish for Monaco in an Olympics.
It was also their last race together, with Rinaldi retiring.
“I don't think we have to be disappointed,” Vain said. “Emotional, for sure. When you work four years for something and you get sixth you have to be emotional. It's completely normal to be. I'm very proud of what we did.”
Then, there are the disruptions that cannot be planned for, no matter how meticulous the four-year preparations. The men’s freeski halfpipe final was marred by high wind gusts, making it difficult for skiers to land tricks in their final runs.
“That’s part of competition,” Wise said. “You can’t always schedule it on a perfect day. Certainly, we would all like it to be a little nicer, but you’ve got to go out there and do what you can on this day.”
Ferreira added: “Sometimes the universe has other plans for you. You have to adapt.”
The popular refrain after a tough sports moment is: “There’s always next season!”
But at the Olympics, “next season” is a wait that’s far too long for some like Federica Brignone, who was a DNF in the slalom.
"I'm a bit sad because you have to wait four more years to live all this,” Brignone said.