KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When she stood in the starting gate for the second run of the giant slalom Tuesday afternoon, Mikaela Shiffrin was nearly a second behind the leader, faced a slushy slope engulfed at times by fog, had to negotiate snow falling at the top and rain at the bottom. This, in her Olympic debut, as the new focus of the U.S. Alpine ski team. Her brain held one notion.
“I was thinking gold medal,” Shiffrin said.
This kind of precociousness — be it cocky or confident, brash or just honest — has helped put Shiffrin in her current position, a contender for Olympic medals at 18. That first medal — and everyone seems to use that term about Shiffrin’s pursuit, because it is assumed she will win at least one and quite possibly more — didn’t come Tuesday.
Shiffrin finished a very solid fifth in the giant slalom, which is not her strongest discipline, behind skiing elite: Slovenia’s Tina Maze, who took her second gold of these Games; Austria’s Anna Fenninger, who added silver to her gold in the super-G; and Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg, the defending gold medalist in the event. Over two runs in downright nasty conditions, Shiffrin finished a half-second off Maze’s winning time of 2 minutes 36.87 seconds, just 0.23 seconds off the podium.
“I think, and it’s just a personal bias, that these are the kinds of conditions that years of experience help you with,” said Shiffrin’s father, Jeff. “All sorts of different snow conditions, raining and fog — da-da-da-da-da — and I think some of the older ladies were able to turn that to their advantage today.”
Which is exactly what Maze, the 30-year-old defending World Cup overall champion, did. She built a commanding lead of more than half a second after the first run — an advantage of 0.91 seconds over Shiffrin, who was fifth in the morning. And then she skied just well enough to hang on, seven hundredths of a second ahead of Fenninger.
“I don’t care if it’s rainy or if it’s sunny or whatever,” Maze said. “Good skiing is possible.”
It was possible, too, for Shiffrin. She admitted to nerves waiting for her morning start, but they did not affect her skiing. She made one mistake during that run that cost her time, but the day was remarkably normal. Jeff Shiffrin’s interaction with his daughter?
“‘Good morning, Mikaela. Have fun today. Bye,’” Jeff said. “That’s it.”
Which seemed to be how she handled the entire affair — not blase, of course, but as if she had planned to be here all along.
“It was a pretty spectacular day, actually,” Shiffrin said. “It’s not sunny, but on the other hand, who gets to race their first Olympics in rain this bad when there’s still snow on the ground?”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
They were conditions, too, with which Shiffrin was wholly familiar given how much time she spent skiing on spring days in Vermont, where she attended Burke Mountain Academy. But as sloppy as the course was — U.S. veteran Resi Stiegler said she twice had to wipe her goggles in the middle of her first run — the racers said the snow held up well, and the weather did not determine the result.
“I think it was a pretty fair race,” Shiffrin said.
Thus, she appeared to have little trouble grappling with the result. When she finished her second run, she was second behind Rebensburg, with four skiers — including Maze and Fenninger — still to come. She barely reacted, knowing the slim chances of holding onto a medal.
Keep in mind, too, that while she was certainly capable of a giant slalom medal here, she wasn’t a favorite for one. Over the past two seasons on the World Cup circuit, Shiffrin has seven wins and 12 top-three finishes in slalom, but has finished on the podium in giant slalom just twice, with no wins.
“I was really thinking that my first ‘GS’ win would be at the Olympics, and that would be such a cool thing to accomplish,” Shiffrin said. “But it’s just something that I accept. I got fifth today. There are four girls who skied better than I did, and I’m really excited to analyze their skiing and analyze my skiing.”
Keys to the skis
Now, the analysis turns quickly to Friday’s slalom. She won the season-long World Cup championship in that discipline last year. She took gold at world championships. She has three victories and a runner-up finish in six slalom races this year.
“In my point of view, this sets her up better for slalom,” Jeff Shiffrin said, “because there’s no distractions.”
Distractions, pressure, fear of the moment. None of those elements seems to affect Shiffrin much. She appears, at 18, a preternatural combination of realistic and ambitious. As the rain fell Tuesday at the bottom of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, she had already processed her result and begun looking forward not just to Friday night — but four years down the road.
“I wanted a gold, but . . . I think this was meant to happen,” Shiffrin said. “It’s something I’m going to learn from. Next Olympics I go to, I’m sure as heck not getting fifth.”