PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As 2017 turned into 2018, Mikaela Shiffrin bounced around Europe, giving her passport a workout and at each stop picking up more hardware for the trophy case back home. In a 2½ -week stretch, she skied — and won — in France, Austria, Norway, Croatia and Slovenia.
“We had a ton of races all back-to-back. I was rested and had great training, great preparation going into that,” she explained. “So I was able to carry my momentum into that whole stretch.”
At all those stops, she raced beautifully, reaching the podium 10 straight times, which included nine first-place finishes and at one point an unheard-of five victories in a row.
“Then after that,” she said, “I got tired.”
As the Olympics crept closer, Shiffrin’s results began to suffer. After reaching an 11th consecutive podium with a third-place finish in Italy in mid-January, she has had five races, finishing no higher than seventh. Even worse, and more startling, she failed to finish three races.
At a time when she would prefer to be peaking on the mountain, Shiffrin, 22, instead invited a bit of uncertainty on the final leg of her journey to these Winter Olympics, where she is one of the biggest American stars and has history in her sights. After nine days of training and acclimating in South Korea, she appeared at a news conference on Saturday morning in PyeongChang, looking rested and eager to prove that she is the skier who was unbeatable a month earlier — and not the one who curiously struggled just two weeks ago.
“I feel much, much better now,” she announced from the dais.
So how rough was it? Her last race before the Olympics was on Jan. 28 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, where she was competing in the slalom, the race she dominates more than any other, the one in which she won gold at the 2014 Olympics. It should have been a confidence-builder, a PyeongChang preview perhaps.
Instead, Shiffrin skied off the course three gates from the finish.
“I was emotional and crying and frustrated,” she said, “just not really myself. That was a sign to me that I was just a little bit too tired.”
Hers is a unique position. Her talent invites pressures both internal and external. Her best stretch of the season was also a grueling one, and the demands caught up with her.
“There’s a lot to deal with in her position with the start she had to the season and just how dominant she was,” NBC analyst Bode Miller said. “She’s much younger. While she’s incredibly intelligent and aware, there’s just no substitute for experience when it comes to that type of stuff.
“You’re young, and you’re fired up, and you’re kicking ass. You think nothing’s ever going to touch you. Then you get 25, 30 races into the season, and you’re like, ‘Jesus, I’m frigging tired.’ Your body just stops doing the things you want it to do. It takes a little longer to get your head in the right space. That’s all normal.”
Miller is a five-time Olympian and six-time Olympic medalist, and he is plenty familiar with life at the top and the toll it takes to stay there. He said that the Olympics and the short break that preceded these Games have given Shiffrin ample time to reset.
Shiffrin arrived in PyeongChang 1½ weeks before her first race here, training and resting in equal amounts. Her first race, barring weather delays, is Monday’s giant slalom, and two days later she will aim to defend her Olympic slalom title. She will be a heavy favorite in both.
She is not ready to commit to the rest of her Olympic schedule. If she feels good about her first two races, she hopes the momentum carries her into the speed events, where she could race the combined, downhill and maybe even the super-G.
“I would like to compete in everything,” she said. “I’m not sure how, if I’m going to actually have the energy to do that. Right now I’m focusing on GS and slalom, and after that I’ll be switching the focus to speed.”
If she is feeling good mentally and physically, she is a threat to medal almost every time she enters the starting gate. She has posted at least one World Cup victory in four disciplines — slalom, giant slalom, downhill and the combined — and also had a fourth-place finish last season in the super-G.
Only one female skier has ever won as many as three gold medals at a single Olympics — Croatia’s Janica Kostelic in 2002. The possibility of taking home multiple medals has prompted some to liken her to the Winter Games’ version of swimmer Michael Phelps, which only makes her laugh.
“I can never even imagine myself in the same sentence as Michael Phelps,” she said. “That’s extremely flattering, but it’s apples and oranges.”
At the very least, she is clearly the best female Alpine skier in the world right now and already has 41 World Cup victories to her name, including 10 this season. Shiffrin said she thinks her mini-slump is behind her, and she has a chance these next two weeks to carve her name in Olympic lore.
“I don’t think anybody questions her dominance or her ability,” Miller said. “If she’s at her best, there’s nobody even close right now on the women’s side.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
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