Updated: February 24, 2014 at 8:27 pm
SOCHI, Russia - Winter never arrived for this Winter Olympics. The skies were clear. The temperatures soared to ridiculous, and wonderful, heights. The mountains glowed in the sunlight and intense moonlight.
Sunshine seldom departed, and the terrorists never arrived. That's the formula for a strong Olympics.
As I begin my journey home, I'll remember these images best:
- The almosts
In November, I talked with several members of the U.S. women's hockey team, and the message was clear.
They wanted to topple Canada. They wanted to destroy the champs with the same intensity that once drove Rocky Balboa. They traveled to Russia with a clear goal.
They were weary of seeing their Canadian rivals dominate Olympic hockey. The Americans seethed with desire.
It was there in front of them. With four minutes left in the gold-medal game against Canada, the Americans led by two goals. With a minute left, the Americans led by a goal.
And the Americans still lost in overtime.
Their failure ranks as the most devastating loss for an American Olympic team since the men's basketball team "lost" to the Soviet Union at the 1972 Munich Games. The 1972 defeat never will be topped because it included outright robbery by the officials.
The loss in Sochi was almost as painful. America's Kelli Stack hit the post with a little less than 90 seconds left in regulation. The shot on an empty net would have clinched the game.
Ninety minutes after Stack's shot hit the post, she stood a few yards outside the U.S. locker room talking with a small group of reporters. One of us asked her why she seemed so reluctant to depart our conversation.
She didn't want to join her teammates, she said. She would rather remain with us than walk into that unbearably sad locker room.
The almosts weren't all agonizing.
The next night, Mikaela Shiffrin was rocketing down a Russian mountain, only a few dozen yards away from her expected gold medal in the slalom.
And she almost fell down. For an agonizing instant, she believed her quest for gold had ended. The teen from the Vail Valley looked on her way to an historic tumble. It would have been the fall of this Olympics.
Somehow, she stayed upright, and a few minutes later she draped herself in the American flag as she celebrated the first of what should be several Alpine golds.
- The really big deal that really wasn't a big deal
When the U.S. defeated Russia in a dramatic, entertaining overtime hockey shootout, there were immediate proclamations about the immense importance of the game.
I was standing among several of the American players about an hour after the game.
"Is this another Miracle on Ice?" a female TV reporter asked Paul Stastny, the former University of Denver star who now plays for the Avalanche.
Ah, no, Stastny answered, correctly. This is a qualifying game in the Olympics. The Miracle on Ice stands among the great American team victories in Olympic history. It might be the greatest team victory.
Yes, the American win seemed so immense.
Only it wasn't.
Russia failed to make the semis, and America failed to make the final.
And then America all but failed to show up in the bronze-medal game.
- And, finally, stray dogs.
I saw stray dogs constantly in Sochi. They followed me around outside the airport. They sneaked past security into the heavily fortified Olympic Park. They, somehow, found their way to the upper elevations in the mountains.
On my first night in Russia, a friend told me about a visit to downtown Sochi. She noticed the strays there walked across busy streets on crosswalks.
I was skeptical.
A week later, I traveled to downtown Sochi. I stood on a corner, waiting for the red to turn to green. I looked across the street and saw a German shepherd mix waiting among a few Russians.
The light changed.
And the stray German shepherd trotted slowly across the street.
Carefully following the confines of the crosswalk.