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U.S. Olympians earned fewer medals than expected, but the Games still offered plenty of uplifting stories

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The entire U.S. Team’s Olympic experience could be summed up in closing ceremonies flag bearer Jessie Diggins’ final race.

The 26-year-old Minnesota native, who made history with teammate Kikkan Randall last week when they won the first-ever U.S. gold in cross-country skiing (team sprints), crashed on a turn in her final race, the grueling 30K event on Sunday morning. It was just as the eventual gold medal winner, Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, began separating herself from the pack.

Diggins scrambled up and continued the race, working her way back into the mix and eventually earning a seventh-place finish — the best for a U.S. skier.

That race, the hope, the unexpected crash, the resilience Diggins showed, the grit it took to earn a respectable finish, and then, maybe most especially, coming so close to the podium without actually breaking into the top three, was inspiring.

The U.S. experience in South Korea was both inspiring and disappointing. It was surprising and more of the same.

It was a testament to tenacity, and a series of disappointments.

In 2018, the USOC sent the largest delegation of athletes (241) to Pyeongchang that any country has ever sent to a Winter Games. In addition to being large in number, the aspirations were lofty.

According to the Associated Press, the USOC predicted it would earn 37 medals.

With the final celebration over, it takes home 23.

Utah athletes didn’t fare as well in 2018 as they did in 2014, either. Only two athletes who reside in Utah earned medals — Brita Sigourney, who earned bronze in ski halfpipe, and Brittany Bowe, who was part of U.S. speedskating's pursuit bronze. However, Utah could lay claim, at least a little, to gold medalist Randall, who was born in Salt Lake City and who spends time training in Utah at the Center of Excellence and Soldier Hollow.

In a press conference wrapping up the U.S. performance at the Games, Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance, acknowledged they would like to win more medals, but they took some comfort in coming close so often.

“We always want to do better,” Ashley said. “I want them to do better because I want that to be a reflection of what they’re capable of. … As I sit here today, the last day of the Games, I’m actually probably more encouraged now than I’ve ever been because even though people would say, ‘You didn’t get your medal count, you didn’t get to the right level.’ Look at the depth of our team.”

The U.S. came agonizingly close to those lofty medal goals.

It had 12 fourth-place finishes, 15 fifth-place finishes and nine sixth-place finishes.

“We had some incredibly close calls,” Ashley said. “I want to basically look at this and say, this is an opportunity for us. We have this amazing depth.”

Ashley said there would be plenty of discussion about what went wrong — and how other successful countries approach the same sports.

"We're going to look at the other countries, (and ask), 'What are they doing?’” Ashley said. “One of the things I'm curious about is that Norway had a runaway success here and they really did a great job preparing their athletes and I really admire them for that. I admire their athletes as well. I want to find out some things about what they're up to.

"And I really want to sit down and get the feedback from the athletes about what sort of things they see in the field in the preparation of their competitors so we can learn from that and focus on some of those things moving forward, whether that's in the areas of coaching, better training, better technology and innovation, more competition opportunities. You've just got to look at all those things as you go into this."

Still, medal count aside, the 2018 Winter Olympics featured plenty of moments that were both inspiring and uplifting.

The Games gave us feel-good, never-give-up stories like U.S. curling and women’s cross-country.

They gave us tales of tenacity and perseverance like the U.S. women’s hockey team and Lindsey Vonn.

They gave us examples of how sometimes we are able to do something as a team that we just can’t accomplish on our own in U.S. bobsledders Elana Meyers Taylor and Lauren Gibbs, who earned silver, and long track speedskaters Brittany Bowe, Heather Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens, who won the first women’s team pursuit Olympic medal with a bronze.

And while the press that covered the Games was overwhelmingly male (81 percent), the U.S. women won more medals than their male counterparts for the first time since 1998, with 12 medals to 11. Keep in mind there are also fewer opportunities for women to win medals in the Winter Olympics.

In that same press conference, Meyers Taylor talked about how things have changed and what the women of Team USA hope people take from their efforts.

"I think prior to this (there was) a societal stigma that being strong is something that, (for) women, should be frowned upon, like women who have muscles, or women who get up there and compete are frowned upon and things like that,” Meyers Taylor said. “Now, in society, being strong is embraced and having muscles is wonderful, and I feel that's encouraging more and more young women to get into sport.

"All of us here and all of the women on Team USA really take that to heart and really go out there knowing that we're trying to perform to represent women as best we can. Hopefully the little girls will look up to us and say they can achieve anything."

The U.S. athletes were also glad the IOC voted not to let Russian athletes march into the closing ceremonies with their own flag, especially in light of two more athletes failing doping tests.

Meyers Taylor said it’s about more than missed medal opportunities.

"It's really a difficult situation as an athlete to know that these offenses have occurred and they've drastically affected medals and not only medals but who's able to participate in the Games,” she said. “In Sochi (2014 Olympic Winter Games) our men's team didn't have three sleds but Russia did, and we missed out on the opportunity of having a third sled in the Games. I'm really going to fight with the IOC … to look into this.

"It's very important to show the youth that you can achieve things without doping. That's a message we all share. I feel like there's been a loss of faith in athletes in these Games, in all Games, because of the offenses that have occurred. So the more of us who are clean (and) will go out there and say, 'Hey, we stand for clean sport,' the better we're all going to be."