KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — This wasn’t supposed to happen, not with such a gaping lead, not with the Olympic gold medal right there, waiting at the bottom of the hill. Yet here was Mikaela Shiffrin, all of 18 years old and in her first Olympics, turning the moment from perfect to apocalyptic. Slalom skiers are trained to keep their skis on the snow, where they can quickly carve the gorgeous arcs that define the discipline. Here came Shiffrin, making a turn in which she needed her left foot to carve, and instead it was splayed in the air.
“I almost died,” said her mother, Eileen.
“I thought, ‘It’s over,’ ” said her coach, Roland Pfeifer.
“That was pretty terrifying for me,” Shiffrin said herself.
Her life, as brief as it has been, all built to this moment, that point Friday night when she collected herself mid-mountain and thus collected her gold medal. Shiffrin was a pre-Olympic darling because she had the ability to do what she did under the lights of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, where she became the youngest slalom champion in the history of the Games. But the way she did it, by courting disaster and knocking it back, enhanced her promise as the future of the sport, an 18-year-old with a career-defining moment in the here and now.
“She took her heart in her hand,” said Kilian Albrecht, the retired Austrian slalom racer who serves as Shiffrin’s agent, “and brought it down.”
So clear out space on the mantle for Shiffrin’s gold, and while you’re at it, make room for more. Her victory Friday is the first medal for an American in slalom — Alpine racing’s shortest, most turn-filled event — since 1984, when brothers Phil and Steve Mahre took gold and silver, respectively, and the first for a U.S. woman since Barbara Cochran’s gold in 1972. Consider that the victory came over 32-year-old Marlies Schild of Austria, whose 35 slalom victories on the World Cup circuit are the most ever. Schild, with silver in hand, handed over the torch.
“It’s fun to ski against her,” she said of Shiffrin. “But it’s also really hard.”
That is the state of slalom racing now because Shiffrin is the best the world has to offer. Her status as the favorite entering Friday’s race wasn’t some hopeful hype. It was based on the facts that she won the season-long World Cup slalom title a year ago, that she won gold in slalom at last year’s world championships and that she leads the slalom standings again this season, during which she has won three races.
Yet as a teenager at the Olympics, what does that mean?
“She was battling nerves,” said her father, Jeff. “No matter how steely you are, they’re in there.”
Her steeliness, though, won out. In the afternoon’s first run, Shiffrin skied sixth and walloped the field, 0.49 seconds better than her nearest challenger, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the 2010 slalom gold medalist. Just three racers were within a second of Shiffrin, who was nearly perfect — fastest over the top section of the course, third fastest in the middle section, fastest over the final section to the bottom, 52.62 seconds of confidence and poise.
“She’s just really consistent — she trains the same way she races — and she’s got a lot of confidence,” U.S. veteran Resi Stiegler said. “Those two things together are almost unbeatable. She’s got that young gun kind of [quality where] she hasn’t failed yet, so there’s nothing in her mind.”
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She did have something in her sinuses, though, a cold contracted during the misery of Tuesday’s giant slalom, which was contested in snow and rain. But she spent the three-plus hours in between runs as she does on the World Cup circuit: with her mother. With an Olympic medal in the offing, Mikaela and Eileen Shiffrin did a few word searches and listened to some music. Buoyed by the first run, Mikaela said to her mother, “You know, I just really like to ski slalom. I’m just going to go ski slalom, not worry about all of this anymore.”
“All of this” referred to the buildup, so much for someone so young.
“She had so much pressure,” Albrecht said.
In a way, that only mounted with the lead. The top 30 finishers from the first run are inverted to start the second, so Shiffrin would ski last among the contenders. By the time she took to the course, her lead had actually grown to 1.34 seconds because Hoefl-Riesch skied poorly, finishing behind Schild and Kathrin Zettel, also of Austria.
Shiffrin couldn’t afford to risk too much, so at the first timed split, her advantage fell to 1.19 seconds. Then came that left-footed turn, that ski in the air, that moment when she could have given it all back.
“I’m like, ‘I’m going to win my first medal,’ ” Shiffrin said. “And then in the middle of the run, I’m like, ‘Guess not.’ ”
The save, though, was everything it needed to be, filled with strength and athleticism and maturity. She kept digging afterward, trying to somehow regain the speed she had lost.
“Some people will call it luck, but it’s no luck,” Albrecht said. “That’s what she’s capable of.”
At the final timing interval before the finish, the lead was down to 0.59 seconds. Shiffrin, even at this early point in her career, has a reputation as a voracious trainer. When others go home, she asks for more runs.
“She wants to know everything about skiing,” Pfeifer said. “The way she trains, the volume she trains — she probably is 25 already.”
So she had the wherewithal, both physically and mentally, to regain her speed. Only one skier, Schild, managed to complete the bottom portion of the course faster than Shiffrin. When Shiffrin crossed the finish line, she carved a long, slow circle before searching for the scoreboard.
“I was a little bit scared to look at it,” she said, but it showed her time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds — 0.53 seconds faster than Schild. Gold.
“It’s an amazing feeling to win an Olympic gold, and it’s going to be something that I chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life,” Shiffrin said. “But my life’s not over yet.”
That, really, is the message of the night. Mikaela Shiffrin came to the Olympics, wobbled and won gold anyway. What happens next, when she’s actually grown up?