Before Alpine skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin won slalom gold at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Barbara Ann Cochran had been the last American woman to medal in the discipline. Cochran won gold in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics by a mere 0.02 seconds, which remains the slimmest winning margin in the event’s Olympic history. Cochran now coaches other skiers on the mental side of the sport.
The Washington Post caught up with Cochran to talk about the mental fortitude it takes to win gold at the Olympics and how she advises athletes to get there. She has worked with six U.S. Olympians at the PyeongChang Games (not including her own son, Ryan Cochran-Siegle).
Q: How did you handle the mental pressure in 1972?
A: I knew I was capable of winning. Then it was a matter of managing my emotions while I was at the Olympics.
I won the first run by three hundredths of a second, and I feel like I started to choke for the second run because I was thinking about the wrong things. I started to focus on the future and [got] really, really nervous. I remember as I was inspecting the course for the second run, I started to think, “Come on [Barbara Ann], you’ve got to change how you’re thinking because, right now, this is not working.”
Q: How have the pressures changed since when you raced?
A: It’s a lot different than when I was competing. When I was doing it, we had no sponsorship. We were amateurs, [so] we didn’t receive anything. I wanted to race for a couple more years, so I wanted to maintain my amateur status.
Q: As TV viewers, what should we watch for in athletes to get a sense of how they might be feeling?
A: When they’re getting ready for the competition, they need to be somewhat relaxed. If you see the tenseness in their body, they’re not going to do well. If they’re looking like they’re really enjoying the whole experience of it, that would be a clue that they’re probably in a good state. If you see someone that’s not happy, they are kind of struggling.
I’ve seen a huge difference in Ryan, my son. This year, he seems so much happier.
Q: What common issues do athletes face? What do you tell them?
A: Probably the most common one is, “I want to be able to race like I train.” When I come to a race, I just can’t ski as well as I am when I’m training. To me, that can be a relatively easy fix.
There’s three things I tell them to think: It’s all about putting in your best effort. Don’t worry about results. You’re just going to execute the things you’ve already developed, the thing you developed the skills for.
The second thing is to build up your confidence by reminding yourself that “I can do this.”
The third thing is to get what I call the inner climate into a good place emotionally. That is when you start thinking, this is so much fun, I just love — and then you fill in the blank.
And then, when they get into the start, if they can smile, that also helps to relieve that tension and it gets you in a really good place to start competing.
A: It’s hard to say. I’m sure [Shiffrin] is feeling a lot of pressure because she’s so outstanding. People are gunning for her. She’s the person to beat. And I think that’s an entirely different pressure than being a youngster.
I’ve been really impressed with Hirscher. The mental piece that it’s life or death for [an athlete] . . . I don’t get that with Hirscher. I really like what I’ve seen mentally from him.
This interview has been edited.
Read more Olympic chats: