PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Mikaela Shiffrin makes it all looks so easy sometimes. For the world’s most dominant female ski racer, the trip from the starting gate to the medals podium is a well-trodden path.
Two difficult runs on Friday offered a harsh reminder for Shiffrin and the world just how difficult this medal pursuit could be, how difficult it will be to leave PyeongChang with a suitcase full of gold. Less than 24 hours after winning the giant slalom, Shiffrin was back on the course at Yongpyong Alpine Centre to defend her Olympic gold in the slalom.
But at the Winter Games, things don’t always go as planned, and in her most dominant and consistent discipline, Shiffrin finished in a disappointing fourth place, endangering her hopes of leaving here with multiple medals. Shiffrin’s total time of 1:39.03 was 0.40 seconds behind first-place finisher Frida Hansdotter of Sweden and just 0.08 seconds away from a spot on the podium.
“I’m more disappointed with how I felt on my skis today than with being in fourth,” she said. “That’s maybe the one saving grace about today for me. I’m not lying when I tell you it’s not about the medals, it’s not about winning races — it’s about how I feel on my skis.”
Shiffrin seemed to know from the start of the day that something was amiss. Before her first run, Shiffrin stood at the top of the course and vomited before launching down the hill.
“I just had this terrible feeling,” she explained later. “It was almost like a food poisoning feeling, like what is happening? I felt like my warm-up skiing was good, my turns and my free skiing was good. But when it came to putting it into the race, I was not like myself at all.”
Shiffrin has been open about her competitive anxieties and her ongoing battle with nerves. Last season she frequently became ill before races and sought the help of Lauren Loberg, a sports psychologist who works with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
On Friday in PyeongChang, in her best discipline and with an empty stomach, she wasn’t her usual dominant self and clocked a time of 49.37 seconds, the fourth-best of the day’s initial runs. Entering the second run, she trailed Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener by 0.48 seconds, not an insurmountable margin by any means.
“Rather than just focusing on the good skiing I know I can do, I was conservative,” Shiffrin said. “I was almost trying to do something special. I don’t need to do something special. I just need to ski like myself and it’ll be fine.”
Of the 2,900 athletes competing in the Winter Games, few are as dominant in their chosen discipline as Shiffrin has been in the slalom. In addition to the Sochi title, Shiffrin has won the past three world titles, dating to 2013 when she was all of 17 years old. She’s now 22 and already has won 30 World Cup slalom events; only two female skiers all time — Austria’s Marlies Schild (35) and Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider (34) — have more. And Shiffrin has won the World Cup slalom title five of the past six years. (In 2016, she missed two months of competition because of a knee injury but still won all five slalom races she entered.)
She had about four hours before her second run, enough time to nap, regroup and calm her nerves. Coming from behind is not a familiar position for Shiffrin, in large part because it’s such unfamiliar territory. This season she has competed in seven World Cup slalom races. She led after the first run in six, eventually winning five and finishing second in another. The only slalom she didn’t lead this season was Jan. 9 in Flachau, Austria, where she was second, trailing only one racer — Austria’s Bernadette Schild — by 0.37 seconds. She scorched through her second run and won the race over Schild by nearly a full second.
There would be no such magic Friday afternoon. She posted a time of 49.66 seconds in her second run — 0.39 seconds slower than her first. She was the fourth-to-last competitor and only could watch as two of the final three racers posted faster total times, bumping her from a spot on the podium.
“I think my best slalom turns are the best in the world. I didn’t do anything close to that today,” she said.
A tough day of racing and the surprising results showed just how daunting this task is — the fanciful idea of a ski racer winning three or four medals at a single Olympics — while also revealing the logistical challenges at play.
Shiffrin came to PyeongChang contemplating as many as five races. But weather wiped out two days of competition, forcing Olympic officials to shuffle and condense the Alpine schedule. For Shiffrin, it meant races wouldn’t be spaced out as much and she wouldn’t have as much time to rest and prepare for the speed events.
Her team decided to pull out of Saturday’s super-G race and haven’t yet made a final decision on next week’s downhill, though the combined is still likely. Having to open these Olympics racing the giant slalom and slalom on back-to-back days was exhausting in every way, Shiffrin said.
“Yesterday, it was such an emotional high, and I think almost feeling that kind of emotion, it was like I let myself feel too much yesterday,” she said. “It’s like peaks and valleys. I had too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today. When you have two races in a row, it’s real important to keep that mental energy stable. And I didn’t really do that.”
One day earlier, she collected her first gold medal of these Olympics. But rather than rest and focus on the next day’s race, Shiffrin had to attend an awards ceremony Thursday night at PyeongChang Olympic Plaza, where she received her medal.
That didn’t start until after 8 p.m. Shiffrin has been trying to go to bed by 8:30 each night, but the night before Friday’s slalom she wasn’t in bed until 10.
“It was certainly not normal preparations,” she said.
There will no medal ceremony to worry about Friday night, and Shiffrin now has some time to rest before she resumes her hunt for a second PyeongChang medal.
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