PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The shrug said it all. It came at the bottom of a ski hill here, a ski hill set with a slalom course that she would be expected to own. Friday morning, Mikaela Shiffrin awoke as a newly minted gold medalist, sobs and squeals of satisfaction behind her. Friday afternoon, with her signature event just finished, she raised her shoulders at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, saying to everyone assembled, “What more could I have done?”
What more could she do now? In a span of 24 hours, Shiffrin took the PyeongChang Olympics by the throat by winning gold in the giant slalom, a discipline in which she is typically excellent. But she is transcendent in the slalom, and may go down as the best ever in that event — a gold medalist at age 18, already with the third-most slalom victories in World Cup history — and she’s not yet 23.
Thursday, after the giant slalom, she said ominously, “Now, we got the ball rolling.”
Friday, unexpectedly, the ball stopped. She finished four-tenths of a second from gold. She finished eight-hundredths of a second from bronze.
“I beat myself in the wrong way,” Shiffrin said.
That is her superiority in slalom. In Shiffrin’s mind, Frida Hansdotter of Sweden, Wendy Holdener of Switzerland and Katharina Gallhuber of Austria didn’t beat her for medals. Shiffrin beat herself.
“Just nerves,” she said. “Yeah.”
It’s an odd thing at the Olympics when favorites lose. Ski racing happens on snow and in wind. It’s primary characteristic may be unpredictability. It is Shiffrin, in recent years, who has caused us to think otherwise. It is Shiffrin who can get so nervous before a run that she throws up — which she did before the first run Friday — and still win. Or lose.
Step back a bit for a second: The gold from Thursday means Shiffrin’s trip to PyeongChang can hardly be considered a disappointment. She is 22. She owns two gold medals. There’s a legitimate way to wonder what’s not to like?
“Going into this Olympics, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could come away with multiple medals. I could also walk away with nothing,’” Shiffrin said after the giant slalom. “And now I know that I have something, so that’s a really nice feeling.”
Multiple medals are still possible, because after skipping Saturday’s super-G to get some much-needed rest — and we’ll get to that — Shiffrin could ski the downhill and the combined — which, quite intuitively, adds the times from one run of downhill and one run of slalom. She could medal in either or both. She could finish off the podium in either or both. It’s why we stay tuned.
But Friday shows why we tune in, too. Shiffrin and the slalom are the most reliable combination in Alpine racing. There have been seven slalom races staged on the World Cup circuit this season. Her finishes: 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 and a did-not-finish that came when she lost her balance three gates from the end — holding a lead of about one second. Thursday, she said she had a “love-hate relationship” with giant slalom. All her life, she has had a love-love relationship with slalom.
So there was something slightly unsettling following Shiffrin’s morning run. In those seven World Cup slaloms, Shiffrin had led at the midpoint six times, and often by astonishing margins. But here on Friday morning, she trailed not only by 0.48 of a second, but stood fourth.
“I’m not super-psyched with it,” she told reporters at the base of the hill. Given her standards, that made sense.
It’s clear, though, that Shiffrin’s performance Friday fits into a larger, more complex equation. In winning gold in giant slalom — a discipline in which Shiffrin has six World Cup wins, compared to 30 in slalom — she seemed to put behind a jittery pre-Olympic jolt from five straight substandard finishes: seventh, did not finish, did not finish, seventh, did not finish.
“The wheels came off the bus a little bit,” said her mother Eileen, who also serves as one of her coaches.
The task, before traveling to South Korea, was to get out a jack and put them back on. Part of Shiffrin’s development into the world’s best female skier at the moment (we’ll get to Lindsey Vonn, the GOAT, later in the week) has been her newfound ability to excel in multiple disciplines. Some of this is a natural progression from four years ago when, at 18, she won gold in Sochi in slalom. Last season, she showed her complete form by becoming the World Cup overall champion, a status that takes in finishes in all disciplines.
But competing in multiple disciplines means training in multiple disciplines. Shiffrin is a voracious worker, an athlete who skews toward taking one more training run rather than one fewer. At one point this season, Shiffrin had five straight victories. Do that, against the best in the world, and you feel invincible. But those five wins came over nine days, enough to make the sturdiest competitor wobbly-kneed.
“It did all catch up to her,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “We could see it. But by then, it was too late, because she was so excited to race. It was like a new toy, all of these things. ‘I can do parallel. I can do slalom. I can do GS — or I can do downhill. This is so fun!’ ”
That, too, is an issue here. Because high winds here jumbled the Alpine schedule earlier in the week, Shiffrin entered the slalom not as rested as she might have been. The original schedule: giant slalom Monday, day off Tuesday, slalom Wednesday. The actual schedule: giant slalom Thursday, late-night trip for a medal ceremony Thursday night, later-than-usual bedtime, slalom Friday.
Part of her job, though, is to roll with that.
“It’s not normal races,” Shiffrin said between slalom runs. “It’s not normal preparation for races. I have to be prepared for anything.”
Including, apparently, the squirrels that, more than occasionally, nest in her head. Thursday, she seemed to have shooed them away. Friday, they reappeared — in an alarming way.
When Shiffrin won her gold Thursday, remaining calm while some pre-race favorites showed vulnerability, I thought anything might be possible. In 2002, Croatia’s Janica Kostelic produced the best Olympics for an Alpine racer: three golds and a silver. With three more events, including one in which she has essentially lapped the field, was it insane to think Shiffrin could approach that?
Maybe it was. Now, she has four days off before the downhill — and potentially a race against Vonn — on Wednesday. She must lock her nerves in a closet. She must put behind the chill of Friday and still feel the warmth from Thursday. Her Olympics are not yet over, so they cannot yet fully be assessed.