SOCHI, Russia -- To watch four hours of Olympic-level figure skating -- the first figure skating event I have ever attended -- is to fall in love with every single competitor. It is a sport that produces nothing but warmth. You find yourself caring about each of them in a deeper way than you could possibly have predicted. I watched 24 women skate for four minutes one right after another, and none of them were even slightly alike. They all deserved their own look. So they all get one from me. Here's what I observed as it happened.
So Youn Park, South Korea. This sport has a reputation for cattiness and backbiting, but I didn't see a sole piece of evidence supporting that. This is the only sporting event in which fans bring signs to the arena that say things like, "Go for your dream." The first skater of the night, Park came into the evening in 23rd place. She falls twice, and stumbles once, and never looks the slightest bit upset about it.
Brooklee Han, Australia. One of the many competitors in this Olympics who are competing for countries other than America even though they're Americans, Han -- who lives in Connecticut but has a dad who is from Australia -- only falls once. Few people are in the arena to see it. The start list for figure skating comes with a handy fact sheet: The exact times each skater will take the ice. This means that the fans know that the first Russian skater won't go until 10:06 p.m. local time, more than three hours after Han. So they're not here yet. It's a shame not all sports can adopt this; bathroom breaks would be far easier to navigate if you knew precisely what time Mike Trout was coming to bat.
Gabrielle Daleman, Canada. The judges in this sport should be noted. Before any competitors even make their way to the rink, each judge gets their own introduction and subsequent ovation. They preen and wave to the camera; a couple even bowed. It is little wonder that figure skating has notorious issues with judging scandals; they treat their judges (who are meant to be anonymous in every other sport) as if they are celebrities, and they act accordingly. These people are power mad! And Sochi has been no different, with the final results up for exhaustive debate. Judging Daleman's routine is fairly easy no matter your level of corruption or incompetence; she fell once and stumbled several times.
Elizaveta Ukolova, Czech Republic. One of the many joys that figure skating provides is when the crowd, inspired by a performance or just a musical number, starts clapping along together. Ukolova is skating to "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)," also known as the Swing Kids song. No human can resist clapping along to that. Unfortunately, the clapping stops when Ukolova misses a jump and goes sprawling across the ice; it's the first Crowd Gasp of the night. They resume clapping when she pulls herself up, but they stop for good when she goes down two minutes later. She ends up with the lowest score anyone will post all day. She's not down about it. No one can be down when that song is playing.
Anne Line Gjersem, Norway. Gjersem comes out to the music from West Side Story, which is fine, but feels like a comedown after Swing Kids. This allows me to try a little game: What will these routines feel like while listening to my own music on headphones? Gjersem jumps around for a while as the Drive-By Truckers' "English Oceans" rocks my brain. All told, it sounds terrific, but I start to feel guilty when Gjersem -- who is the first female Olympic figure skater from Norway in 50 years, which is surprising, right? -- falls, so I take the headphones out.
Nicole Rajicova, Slovakia. When you watch figure skating at home, for brevity's sake, television only shows you the top skaters, the ones who have a legitimate chance to medal. You are watching the best of the best. And even they fall a lot. The poor souls who finish at the bottom of the standings? They don't stand a chance. There are so many falls. It makes you appreciate how hard this is. It is also jarring every single time it happens. This lovely routine, these willowy creatures gliding across the ice, and then WOOOSH they're on the ground. I can't imagine it's something even the most experienced viewer of figure skating ever gets used to.
Kaetlyn Osmond, Canada. Osmond starts fine but then falls, of course. Here's another thing about the falls: When you're down at the bottom of the standings like this, the Jumbotron doesn't replay your falls. Later, when the top skaters are going, this policy will change, but down here, it feels like piling on. It's quite considerate. Also, every single skater gets an ovation when they come off the ice. Figure skating fans are a lot nice than you are.
Elene Gedevanishvili, Georgia. Another sign of how supportive figure skating fans are: Gedevanishvili -- European copy editors have the hardest jobs -- receives a huge ovation from the 90-percent-Russian crowd even though these two nations were at war six years ago and still aren't the best of friends. (Though it's getting better.) Gedevanishvili trained in Russia until right before that war started, when she moved to the U.S., which might not have been the worst move.
Haejin Kim, South Korea. Kim comes out a cut from the Black Swan soundtrack by Clint Mansell -- it is a relief that Kim does not choose Mansell's Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, which would be the most horrifying ice skating song imaginable -- and, like the song, she's outstanding. It is still disconcerting to hear because the music is so evocative of that film's theme of tiny young women destroying themselves for an art that's not dramatically different from this one. Kim, in the midst of a solid routine, preps for a jump but doesn't notice the wall behind her, and it trips her up and sends her sprawling. (That's now nine skaters falling in a row.) This inspires the first competitor tears of the night; Kim's devastated. She'll end up finishing 16th.
Kanako Murakami, Japan. Murakami becomes the first skater not to fall, though her routine strikes me as purposefully safe. She nonetheless earns the best score so far, and even though she knows with the best skaters coming up it won't hold up, she beams like she just won the gold. (By the end of the night, she'll be 12th.) It's a legitimate relief to see a competitor not fall. It starts to get to you after awhile.
Kexin Zhang, China. Zhang doesn't fall either, but she's not particularly exciting. I'm starting to worry that the key to this sport is being safe and not making any mistakes, because Zhang gets the third best score of the day. (Behind Murakami and Osmond.) This thought is quickly corrected.
Mao Asada, Japan. One of the favorites coming into the Games, Asada had a disastrous short program yesterday and is all the way down at 16th place, essentially eliminating any chance at a medal. She had little reason other than pride to keep going.
And then there is a moment that it clicks.
Asada is the one person in this whole field who does the triple axel -- the most difficult move in the sport; only five women have ever done it international competition, including Asada -- and when she takes off and nails it 10 seconds in, suddenly, this unseasoned observer no longer finds anything funny or unusual about this sport: It is simply beautiful. For the next four minutes, Asada glides about a foot above the ice, flying around the arena, rising into the rafters, lifting out of the arena and into the sky. You will not convince me this did not happen.
The best part about watching an event like this in person is that you do not have the artificial viewpoint of the closeup. You are watching, from beginning to end, a choreographed routine, something that has been fussed over and altered and honed to perfection by people who have devoted their lives to this work. It is, more than anything, a story. When it clicks -- and if you are here, it will click for you -- figure skating seems to represent the most logical, natural movements a body can make. You stop counting falls and making snide observations about the atmosphere. You stop doing much of anything but watch.
Asada's routine, which earned the third-highest free skate score of the day (behind only the gold and silver Medalists), made everything fall into place. This is why they're all cheering. I stood at attention and found myself profoundly grateful to be there.
Zijun Li, China. This revelation came at the exact moment when the event took its halftime break to resurface the ice, so, sadly, the spell was snapped by the sight of a Zamboni. The Zamboni is obviously necessary for any ice sport, but it still feels far more natural at a hockey game than a figure skating event. Here, it is clunky and plodding. Even the name feels wrong here; "Zamboni" is a hockey term, not a figure skating one. I missed most of Li's skate, which is for the best; Asada required a break to regroup.
Mae Berenice Meite, France. Of all the sounds you expect to hear at an Olympic figure skating final, rather low on the list? A ZZ Top song. Not just that, but "La Grange." Somehow it worked. The muscular Meite brought the rock show to Sochi; "La Grange" was followed up with Queen's "We Will Rock You." Basically, Meite somehow put together a figure skating routine to a classic rock station. It wasn't the most impressive bit of skating you saw all night, but it was difficult not to admire the chutzpah.
Akiko Suzuki, Japan. One of figure skating's most charming traditions involves fans throwing flowers and stuffed animals onto the ice at the end of a routine they loved. (Beats octopi.) The inevitable problem is that it's hard to throw a stuffed animal very far; they lack the necessary density. After Suzuki's dramatic routine -- set to the end of "Phantom of the Opera," a washing machine would feel dramatic -- fans from Japan's cheer section kept heaving stuffed animals that just … didn't … quite … make it. One landed right on the lip of the boards, and a volunteer helpful walked up to it and pushed it onto the ice where it belonged. She then turned around and took a plush toy to the face. No good deed.
Valentina Marchei, Italy. Tall and remote, Marchei does a strangely icy routine that's nevertheless compelling and magnetic. She doesn't do a ton of jumps and isn't particularly ambitious, but you can't take your eyes off her. She ends up fourth with eight skaters left, but she does a fist pump anyway. Whatever her internal goal for the skate, she matched it with room to spare.
Polina Edmunds, United States. She's 15, and doesn't even look that old, which makes what happens even more amazing. With the whole planet watching, she fell early on a triple jump and it didn't seem to phase her one bit. She goes out and nails the rest of her routine, which is an absolutely ridiculous thing for a 15-year-old human being to be able to do. When she finished, she grinned nervously, like I can't believe I just did that, and then grabs a stuffed animal and waves and laughs and the fact that this thing is a scored competition with people silently judging feels obscene and wicked.
Nathalie Weinzierl, Germany. Weinzierl comes out to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and this is probably a good time to note that one of the truly best things about watching figure skating in person is that you get to hear absolutely beautiful music at an arena volume. This is one of the most incredible songs ever written, and she could have been taking a chainsaw to a Studebaker and it would have been gorgeous. Winzierl falls around the time we see Central Park in the opening of Manhattan and you barely noticed. Hockey arenas give you The Offspring. Figure skating arenas give you Rachmaninoff.
Yulia Lipnitskaya, Russia. Fifteen minutes before Lipnitskaya takes the ice, the crowd begins screaming "RUSS-EEY-YAA!" Needless to say, this is what they've been waiting for. Lipnitskaya, who fell in the short program, is thought to be the next superstar of the sport, and you can see why: Everything she does flows so smoothly that all other human movements seem clunky and awkward. (She makes walking seem so clumsy.) Her natural talent is overwhelming, which is why, when she falls again, you wonder if there was something wrong with the ice. Lipnitskaya is the youngest competitor here (about a month younger than Edmunds), and it shows. At the end of her routine, even as she's showered with applause, she looks scared and confused, like she had an accident and is terrified she's going to get in trouble for it. She looks too young to understand all of this, to understand her gift, and what it means. How in the world could she?
Carolina Kostner, Italy. After the fragile Lipnitskaya, Kostner looks giant, mature, adult. She skates with grace, sure, but they all do; Kostner skates like she does this for a living, dammit, and is proud of it. She's a professional, and three minutes in, it's clear she's having the time of her life. She is in charge. As her routine ends, she saunters off the ice like she owns it. I don't know if she gave the best performance of the night, but she sure as hell had the most fun doing it.
Adelina Sotnikova, Russia. The roar for her is loud, obviously, but it doesn't feel as earthshattering as the one for Lipnitskaya: You wonder if the porcelain doll is their favorite. That doesn't last long, though; other than a stumble -- and it was definitely a stumble -- she's breathtaking, and when she's done, she bursts into tears, the first Joy Weeps of the night. It's also possible that her tear ducts are just involuntarily reacting to the explosion of sound that occurred the minute she finished. It is a collective simultaneous joy bomb. Lipnitskaya isn't their favorite anymore.
Gracie Gold, United States. No one could possibly follow the show that Sotnikova and the Russian fans put on; it's possible the ice was still shaking. Gold does her best but she falls, and once again, these awesome fans gasp and sigh when she goes down even though they desperately want Sotnikova to win. Gold did great otherwise, and her facial expression as she sees her score -- which puts her third with two skaters left -- says, "Didn't nail it. I'm OK with it." She's 18 and is gonna be on cereal boxes in four years.
Ashley Wagner, United States. The meme-friendly American has a perpetual mischievous look in her eye, and she always appears to be chuckling at a joke that only she's in on. She does well but was too far back after the short program to have much of a chance, and she's disappointed with her score anyway. She doesn't look upset about it; she just waves and makes a goofy face and I think she could be our best friend, America, if we want her to be.
Yuna Kim, South Korea. Here's the defending gold medalist and the favorite to win this time, and she doesn't seem to like it all that much. She's obviously the most talented skater here and performs a flawless routine, but at the end, she looks mostly relieved that it's finally over. The strain on someone of her caliber is impossible to comprehend. To me, she appeared to be the best other than Asada. But mostly: I'm just happy for her that it's over.
The final tally: gold to Sotnikova, silver to Kim, bronze to Kostner. Those are scores, though, given by judges, human beings. Those are fallible -- for some, maybe even too fallible to really trust. The scores obviously matter. For what it's worth, I thought Kim was clearly better than Sotnikova. But as far as I'm concerned, every one of these skaters is perfect. I won't miss one of these again. You really must go. You really must see it.