BUKPYEONG, South Korea — From this vantage point, standing in the snow with her skis off and both the race hill and the PyeongChang Olympics behind her, maybe it makes sense that what we thought Mikaela Shiffrin could accomplish here was too much to expect, even for her. We know her second Olympics produced both a gold and a silver, the latter of which came Thursday in the Alpine combined, and that is historic. We also know that, in her time here, she produced her best skiing less frequently than she hoped, and that impacted her results.
Those two realities can seem like opposites. But we must understand that they can coexist. Sorting out how and why they happened . . . well, that could take four years. Or just be plain impossible.
“It’s been, really, a mental roller coaster,” Shiffrin said. So strap in and try to decipher what went down.
Expectations can be funny and cruel. They can motivate or paralyze. They are placed on a competitor because of her talent, her results, her capacity for work — because of the totality of who she is. More than anything, they are nebulous, affecting each athlete — each person, each personality — differently. Worse, they can impact the same person one way on a Thursday, wholly the opposite on a Friday.
“You have to remember your expectations are not everyone else’s,” said Lindsey Vonn, the best female Alpine skier of all time, who knows something about the subject. “A lot of times, that’s really hard to do.”
What was said about Shiffrin before these Games was true afterward, when she stood in that snow and faced those questions: She was a contender for gold medals in the slalom, giant slalom and combined, and she’s talented and versatile enough that she might have been a threat in the two speed disciplines — super-G and downhill — with which she has much less experience.
Upon the close of these Olympics — an Olympics in which she was a focal point, even though she is just 22 and could appear two or even three more times — the results can be analyzed both by what actually played out and what was possible.
“To come away from this Olympics with two medals is insane,” Shiffrin said, and there’s no shame in saying that because no American woman has ever captured more medals at a single Winter Games. Shiffrin has competed in five Olympic events over the past two Games. Her finishes: fifth, first, first, fourth, second. Who wouldn’t take that?
Still, when she opened these Olympics by winning gold in the giant slalom, no expectation seemed to be too much. The slalom followed immediately, and she is a virtuoso in that event. The limits of possibility were about to be pressed. Just watch.
And yet she skied into fourth, beaten by three women she regularly flogs on the World Cup circuit. There were, in the estimation of one of her coaches, two factors.
“I think energy and fatigue,” said Mike Day, who works exclusively with Shiffrin for the U.S. Ski Team, “and, unfortunately, confidence.”
So here we had the most dominant women’s Alpine skier performing in her best event on her sport’s brightest stage — essentially unable to handle what was placed on her. Shiffrin, dating back years, does not bottle up the realities of the mental mess that sometimes occupies her head. She has talked about throwing up before races — more of a last-year problem, she reiterated Thursday. Still.
But it raises the question, too: How can someone who has essentially mastered a task, someone who makes better slalom turns than anyone in the world, struggle with confidence before a slalom? Not just at the Olympics. Ever.
“If I had the answer to that, I’d probably be a professional psychologist, not a ski coach,” Day said. “I do that part time. But I think that the Olympic Games are something that are really difficult to manage with a lot of expectation. And clearly, all of America was expecting a lot from her.”
Indeed, it was. And I’m not going to take a back seat here, either. I wrote, before the Games, that Shiffrin could contend in five events. I wrote, after she won the giant slalom, that the slalom felt all but inevitable, and who knows what might happen after that?
But because the early part of the PyeongChang Alpine schedule was jumbled by weather — mostly high winds — Shiffrin dropped the super-G, the discipline with which she has the least experience, because it would have meant three straight days of racing. After two training runs in downhill, she announced she would skip that event — which, because the combined was moved from Friday to Thursday to avoid a forecast of more high winds — came just a day before another race in which she would be favored. Her mind wove through all these different events, and she almost couldn’t sort out what was going on when and how she should approach any of it.
“It was like someone was playing a game of ping-pong in my brain,” she said, and she laughed.
On Thursday morning, though, she said she felt good. She made a mistake at the top of her downhill run that cost her time, but she was within two seconds of Vonn’s first-place run headed into the afternoon slalom. Only five skiers posted faster downhills.
“I thought her chances were good,” Day said. “She’s a dominant slalom skier.”
But then, for the second time in less than a week, she did not dominate the slalom. Before Shiffrin skied, Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener turned in runs of 40.41 and 40.23 seconds. Shiffrin could match neither of them, skiing in 40.52. When the times from the two runs were added together, Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin, third in the downhill, crushed her, winning by nearly a full second.
Day believed that the way the slalom course was set — not as long or turny or technical as Shiffrin would prefer, more in a direct line — worked against his athlete. But in the next breath, he uttered another truism.
“There’s certainly no excuses,” Day said. “Everybody had to ski the same course.”
The truth about any Olympic performance — winning or losing, medal producing or failing to finish — is that it results from enough ingredients to produce a complex soup, one that’s simultaneously spicy and savory. In Alpine skiing, pick from a long list: the weather, the slope, the course setup, the wind, the terrain, the strain of the events that took place the day before, luck. On a given day, pick what’s most important.
Even Thursday, take Austria’s Marcel Hirscher. He is to the men’s slalom what Shiffrin is to the women’s, the winner of six of the past seven World Cup races in the discipline. At the Olympics, with two golds in his bag already, he skied out of the first run, failing to finish.
It’s also clear, though, that the most important ingredient in succeeding in an environment like this — an environment in which expectations color everything that transpires — is that what happens in an athlete’s brain might override everything else.
“For sure, the expectations were high,” Shiffrin said. “But when I came here, I was thinking more about my own expectations.”
She leaves here with one gold and one silver, an enormous accomplishment for any athlete. Yet for Mikaela Shiffrin, sorting out the path to that haul is complex. We might not really know how to view it until four years from now, when we will better know what she learned from this experience — and how she applied it going forward.
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