BUKPYEONG, South Korea — In so many ways, the final day of Mikaela Shiffrin’s Olympics came to embody all the days and all the emotions that preceded it. Frustration sharing a stage with joy. Beauty marred by tiny blemishes. Results that didn’t necessarily match the goals but are certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Shiffrin showed no outward signs of disappointment Thursday afternoon. She had come to PyeongChang hoping to win multiple medals, and she did. A gold in the giant slalom and now a silver in the Alpine combined means Shiffrin has three Olympic medals in her career, more than anyone not named Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso or Lindsey Vonn — all royalty in the U.S. Alpine world. And Shiffrin’s all of 22 years old.
“To come away from this Olympics with two medals is insane,” Shiffrin said.
A gold and a silver — paired with a fourth-place finish in her best event, the slalom — were not exactly what she’d spent the past four years dreaming about. She had discussed openly the possibility of winning three or four — or, who knows, maybe five? — medals in PyeongChang, and as she grew faster and faster in every single discipline, no one was eager to rule her out.
“For sure, the expectations were high. But when I came here, I was thinking more about my own expectations,” she said Thursday when it was all finished.
The gap between what was possible and what was probable might as well have been the distance from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Sure, Shiffrin had shown great promise in multiple disciplines this year, but coming to PyeongChang, she somehow needed to find that magic and deploy it on a nearly daily basis.
Instead, these Olympics featured just flashes of her brilliance — brilliant, bright flashes — that were enough for two impressive events, but not the stack of medals she might’ve envisioned.
On Thursday, she put up the sixth-best time in the downhill but was 1.98 seconds behind the run’s best time, which was posted by Vonn, a four-time Olympian who was competing in her final Olympic race. Shiffrin bobbled early in the run, which kept her from switching to a higher gear and really attacking the course.
“For me to take an insane amount of risk in a downhill, it’s sort of like, ‘For what?’ I’m not at that level yet,” she said.
Nearly two seconds was a big gap, but the second leg of the combined is the slalom, and no one in the world has been better since Shiffrin was a teenager. But this slalom was no sure thing — not after she’d posted that disappointing fourth-place finish in the event last week.
Later in the afternoon, Shiffrin stood at the starting line, knowing a second gold was within reach. The top of the course was fast, and Shiffrin left some time on the hill. But she recovered much of it over the final dozen or so gates, accelerating when the snow felt better and the finish line drew closer. Still, she managed only the third-best slalom time of 40.52 seconds and was quickly overtaken by Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin, who bested Shiffrin’s total time by nearly a full second, 2:20.90 to 2:21.87.
“Coming out here today, I did everything that I needed to do to have a shot for a medal, and it’s really cool to have that work out,” Shiffrin said.
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Vonn’s presence added plenty of intrigue and suspense. After posting the top downhill time, Vonn was the event’s final racer, theoretically with a chance to topple both Gisin and Shiffrin. But Vonn said she’d taken just three training runs in the slalom this season. She hit a gate just one-quarter of the way down the course and skied out, ending her spectacular career.
“As much as I had very little chance of getting on the podium today, I still had a chance,” Vonn said. “Would’ve loved to have been there and made it to the finish, but such is life.”
Shiffrin seemed pleased with her Olympics and relieved that they’re finally over. She said these Winter Games and the long lead-up were like a “mental roller coaster.”
After dominating the World Cup season — at one point winning five straight races and making 11 consecutive podiums — she suffered a late January swoon. In her five races that preceded PyeongChang, she finished no higher than seventh, failing to finish three. She came to South Korea nearly 1½ weeks early to acclimate and reset.
“And on my first day back on my skis after a couple days of rest, I felt terrible,” she said. “And I was like, ‘I should just go home.’ ”
The jet lag wore off, though, and she started to feel confident about what she could do here. Then, just as she was locking in, the wind on the mountain picked up and blew the race schedule all over the calendar. All three events Shiffrin raced were held on different days than originally scheduled.
“It was like someone was playing a game of ping-pong in my brain,” she said.
Nowhere was that mental fatigue more evident than in the slalom. Despite all the uncertainty, she managed to get her Olympics off to a perfect start, gaining some momentum by winning the giant slalom. But the next day at the slalom, her nerves rattled like wind chimes in a hurricane, and she vomited moments before making her first run, missing the podium.
Everyone in the Alpine world knows exactly how ambitious Shiffrin’s goals had been here. Vonn won a bronze here in Wednesday’s downhill but knows what it’s like to leave an Olympics with a lot of hardware, having won a gold and a bronze eight years ago in Vancouver.
“It’s incredible what she’s able to accomplish,” Vonn said. “She’s so young, and she approaches ski racing much different than pretty much anyone else. I think she had potential to do a lot more at these Games, but at the same time — same like me — you can’t expect everything all the time.”
Shiffrin will resume her World Cup season, where she’s a big favorite to claim both her second straight overall title and fourth consecutive slalom title. And she’ll probably keep getting more comfortable in the speed disciplines. She has grown so much in them these past four years, there’s no telling what the next Olympic cycle might hold.
“Just knowing that I can put fast times down in pretty much any event, that is really huge for me,” she said. “In Sochi, I felt like, ‘Ah, I’m just like a little slalom skier.’ . . . At that point, yeah, I talked about winning five golds, and it was more just the idea of improving my skiing enough in all events that I could contend for multiple medals. So to be in this position now is incredibly sweet. Moving forward, I know what to do to get better.”
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