U.S has a Successful Winter Olympic

Bode Miller hooked a gate and skied off course in his last race of the 2010 Winter Games, Saturday’s slalom.

“It doesn’t always go your way,” said the U.S. skier, who turned a 180 on his 2006 Olympic experience by winning three medals and hearts and minds here. “But overall this Olympics was amazing how many things went my way.”

The same could be said for the U.S. team. Not everything went the USA’s way — the women’s figure skaters, for example, came away medal-less for the first time since the 1964 Games.

But an amazing amount of things did go well for the U.S. team, from Miller’s rehabilitative performance to Nordic combined’s emphatic breakthrough to snowboard halfpipe near-sweeps to Evan Lysacek‘s figure skating gold and Steven Holcomb‘s victorious drive in four-man bobsled.

All of those things added up to the best Winter Olympic performance by a nation in history. Team USA’s 37 medals topped the 36 won by Germany in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the previous high.

“To know that this is the biggest medal haul ever is pretty amazing,” says short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, who became the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian by boosting his career medal total to eight in Vancouver. “I think it speaks volumes about the support we have, about the athletes’ own determination and that, basically, anything is possible.”

Although U.S. athletes have led the medal count in the last four Summer Olympics, this is the first time the USA is the Winter Games’ winningest team since the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid.

“It’s been so cool to watch the American flag go up on the podium so many times,” says Lindsey Vonn, who came in as the U.S. cover girl of the Games but who, despite winning downhill gold and super-G bronze, leaves as one of many headliners. “I’m proud to be part of any Olympic team. But to see the success we’ve had is really inspiring.”

Just 12 years ago in Nagano, the U.S. team won 13 medals overall, which to that point was the most it ever had won in a Winter Games.

“In Nagano, we felt like we were a small country at the Olympic Games,” says U.S. Nordic combined skier Billy Demong, a four-time Olympian who last week became the first U.S. gold medalist in his sport. “As a whole team we still kind of felt like one of the outsiders at the Winter Olympics.”

Soon after Nagano, with the 2002 Games on the horizon, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed how it funded the national governing bodies (NGBs) that find, develop and train Olympic athletes.

The USOC customized its partnerships with those organizations — working to meet the needs and challenges of each rather than applying blanket standards to them all — and took a more performance-based approach to funding.

The USOC gave an unprecedented $36.5 million to the NGBs between Nagano and Salt Lake.

The Salt Lake Games became a watershed moment in U.S. Winter Olympics history, with the USA nearly tripling its Nagano medal haul and finishing second in the medals table to Germany.

“Salt Lake left a legacy for the U.S.,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge says. “That legacy continued through Torino and still here.”

In the 2006 Torino Games, the U.S. experienced a drop-off typical for countries that go from hosting the Games to competing on foreign soil. But the USA finished second with 25 medals to Germany’s 29.

With third-place Canada, which won 24 medals in Torino, investing more than $100 million in such things as athlete training and technology and openly aiming to lead the medals table in Vancouver, it was unclear whether Team USA could match or improve on its 2006 performance. USOC officials declined to discuss their projections publicly.

“Almost no matter what our projections were,” says Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s chief executive officer, “it would be very, very hard to deny the fact that we exceeded our expectations here.”

By doing so, of course, U.S. athletes have raised the bar much higher on expectations. The challenge will be to maintain this momentum at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia — which won’t offer the same comforts of home, such as similar language and culture, that being just across the border did.

“Anytime you have a target on your back or anytime you’re looked at as the leader of the group — as the U.S., I always feel like, clearly is — it makes it very difficult,” Ohno says. “But our athletes, the young and the older veterans, are up for the challenge.”

The USOC plans to maintain its level of investment — it gave $55 million to winter NGBs and athletes over the last four years. And athletes such as Demong plan to keep competing.

“Regardless of where the Games are,” Demong says, “we’re doing the right things to bring the right athletes with the right expectations to continue this kind of success.”

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