You can look at the pairs skating final on the micro level, poring over the dozens of numbers on the score sheet, and you will find the mathematical differences that accounted for the outcome.
Or you can look at it on the macro level, seeing the forest instead of the trees, and you will find a poignant story of perseverant triumph over relentless adversity, a triumph made even more remarkable because it came in a Saturday competition with extraordinary skating.
The way Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China won the gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics was, in a way, a microcosm of their lengthy partnership, a performance in which a big problem did not stop them. They had one big problem on a jump during Saturday’s free skate, but overcame it with surpassing excellence on everything else.
They had prevailed over doubters who said their body types did not fit into pairs skating. Over injuries that required two difficult foot surgeries for her and a hip surgery for him. Over the pressure of trying to win at home in a country brimming with nationalistic pride.
Over one couple representing the Russian Olympic Committee, Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who had beaten them at last year’s World Championships. Over another ROC couple, Evgeniya Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, who finally skated to their enormous potential.
They prevailed over Tarasova and Morozov by a margin so small it amounted to less than three thousandths of a percent of their world record total score. The champions had 239.88 points, the silver medalists 239.25, the bronze medalists, Mishina and Galliamov, 237.71.
Never in the five Olympic pairs competitions under an iteration of the new judging system had the gap between first and third been so small.
“The first and second-place finishers, the performances were truly fantastic,” Galliamov said to the Olympic Information Service.
He and Mishina were fantastic in execution of elements, earning the highest technical score. Tarasova and Morozov, moving in effortless harmony, had the highest score on the artistic side, known as program components.
Sui and Han put the two parts of skating together with athletic prowess that included a quadruple twist, which no other pair had done since the 2018 Olympics, and performance skills of unquestionable quality.
“It was a masterful blend of technical expertise, thoughtful choreography and an emotionally powerful performance,” said Sandra Bezic of Canada, 1972 Olympic pairs skater and longtime TV commentator.
The emotion came from skating to music of particular significance to Sui and Han, music they had used before in a time of struggle, Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.”
The first time, when it brought them the 2017 world title, was personal, to acknowledge Sui’s fight back from surgery on both feet before the season began. This time, they wanted the music to have broader meaning in a world living with dislocation, separation and loss for more than two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We hope our program can be that bridge over troubled waters to support everyone in their darkest moments, so they can overcome just as we overcame losses and injuries,” Sui said through a translator at the press conference after the medal ceremony.
“You need to have the belief there will be light at the end of the tunnel and that you can always go into brightness if you believe in yourself.”
A bit much, given that this is essentially about figure skating? Perhaps. Truth be told, though, the sport needed a little brightness after the gloom of the women’s singles competition, with its doping cloud and its tornadic climax.
The U.S. pairs teams certainly found themselves in a warmer spotlight than they had for 20 years.
Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier had just one negative grade of execution, and a small one at that (-0.26 points), on the combined 18 elements in the short and free programs.
“It was the best we’ve performed our programs since we teamed up,” said Frazier, who has partnered with Knierim for just two seasons.
“Today we were just so in synch,” Knierim added.
Personal best scores in the free and total (212.68 points) put them in sixth, the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair since Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman. Although Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc struggled in the free, their eighth-place finish gave the U.S. two pairs teams in the top ten for the first Olympics since a fourth and eighth in 1998.
“The result is a bonus,” Frazier said. “I think a top six for U.S. pair and two top 10s at the Olympic Games shows how much strides we have made.”
Sui, 26, and Han, 29, have been at this together for most of their lives, originally inspired by seeing the man who would become their coach, Zhao Hongbo, win a bronze medal in pairs with Shen Xue at the 2002 Olympics. Shen and Zhao, partners for 18 years, would go on to win China’s only previous figure skating Olympic gold in 2010.
Not long after they switched from singles to pairs, Sui and Han heard discouraging opinions based on their height. Both were small, and a traditional pairs team matches a relatively tall man with a significantly shorter woman.
“(We learned) when people said this was a dead end, don’t be afraid, just blaze your own path,” Han said.
He is now listed at 5 feet 7 inches tall, she at a bit under 5 feet. Both Morozov and Galliamov are 6-1, their partners 5-3. Sui and Han have learned to belie that shortage with passion, speed and power that make it seem like she covers several time zones when he launches her in a throw.
During Saturday’s free skate, their scores for throws were a significant part of the winning margin. Those points offset the potential nightmare of having a mistake on side-by-side triple salchow jumps become their Olympic undoing again, as it (and another jump mistake) had in 2018, when they finished second by just 0.43 points.
This time, the mistake was even worse, downgrading the salchows to a double and giving them more than four points fewer than Tarasova and Morozov received for the same element. But Sui and Han immediately recovered with maximum grades for a throw triple flip after near maximum marks on a lift.
“Before I got on the ice, I knew all my competitors have done very well, and I am under a lot of pressure,” Han said. “So was Sui, and she told me that.”
Sui took Han’s hand and reassured him with the reminder that their music was a talisman.
“We can do it,” she said. “We are going to do well. We have created many marvels already. Let’s do the same.”
This was another, no matter how you look at it.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.