U.S. in comfort zone at these Games
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If U.S. Olympic athletes bring home a record medal haul, and they just might, there will be one glaringly obvious underlying factor: The Americans have had all the comforts of home and none of the pressures of a home Games.
Competing in Canada is like moving into the house next door in a new subdivision: same floor plan, slightly rearranged furniture. There's no culture shock, no skeevy food and no language barrier, unless you count those extra U's in words like colour and glamour, which the U.S. has displayed in abundance here. The trip here was easy for family and friends to make, so more of them made it.
A number of U.S. athletes actually have blood ties in Canada, starting with moguls skier Hannah Kearney, whose Montreal-born mother signed her up for ski ballet lessons at age 7 and who has extended family in British Columbia. Kearney won a gold medal on the first full day of the Games, edging defending champion Jennifer Heil of Canada, who had been the It Girl of the Canadian media for months. The tone was set from there.
That old-school jock credo about trying to treat the Olympics like any other competition is actually applicable here. Heck, after Nordic combined skier Johnny Spillane's historic silver medal in the individual event -- the first by an American in a sport where they used to be fish feed -- the combined squad team packed up and flew back to Park City, Utah, to train for a few days. They will be medal favorites in the team event Tuesday.
As of Monday morning, with seven days of competition remaining, the U.S. team had 24 medals: seven gold, seven silver and 10 bronze. With Meryl Davis and Charlie White all but assured a medal of some color in Monday night's ice dance finale, and Tanith Belbin (a dual citizen!) and Benjamin Agosto still in striking distance, by Tuesday that number should equal or exceed the Americans' previous best in an away Winter Games, which was 25 in Torino four years ago. Even the all-time bonanza of 34 medals reaped in Salt Lake is within reach.
But the more impressive statistic is the United States has a chance to lead the medals table for the first time since the 1932 Games in Lake Placid. (The honor has been dominated since then by three nations: Germany in its various incarnations, the Soviet Union/Russia and Norway.)
Some might have predicted the U.S. team would have an easier time dominating when the International Olympic Committee began adding X sports in the late 1990s, but a curious thing has happened here. The U.S. is overachieving in one of the bedrock sports of the Winter Games, Alpine skiing.
U.S. Alpine coach Sasha Rearick said being in the North American comfort zone has definitely helped his team stay in the zone in general.
"It's close to home in terms of feeling," Rearick said. "I think we came into the Games with a tremendous plan, and the execution of the plan by all parts of the staff has been fantastic. I think that helps us and probably takes a little edge off the Europeans, who always get to go home and sleep in their own bed and get mama's cooking."
Of course, there are a million different tributaries in the river of success the U.S. team is riding here. The fact that both Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller have had career Olympics here is a confluence few might have bet on a few months ago, for example.
To have a great Games, a powerhouse nation needs three things. It needs its stars to deliver, it needs veterans to use their experience to get back on the podium and it needs some young athletes to jump up out of nowhere and surprise the field.
Nearly all the first-name-basis U.S. athletes, Shaun and Apolo and Bode and Lindsey and Shani, have done what was expected of them or more. Davis was upset in the 1,500-meter event, but the slow ice of the Vancouver oval was going to lend itself to a few odd results. Only Lindsey Jacobellis' inability to finish in snowboardcross could truly be called a disappointment.
Evan Lysacek tuned out the distracting static of Evgeni Plushenko and the quad and skated brilliantly to take figure skating gold. Alpine skier Julia Mancuso and moguls skier Shannon Bahrke added to their medals collection from previous Olympics, while Andrew Weibrecht (Alpine, super-G), J.R. Celski (short-track speedskating) and Bryon Wilson (moguls) scored in their first. The podium shutout so far in sliding sports is one of the few letdowns for the delegation as a whole.
Familiarity has bred accomplishment here in western Canada. Make sure to enjoy it if it continues to last this week. The next Winter Games are in Russia, and only one national team will be totally at ease there.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.