KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- She let the pain slip for just a moment, but only in a place where it would scarcely be seen and in the arms of one of the few people who could best understand it. This was early Tuesday afternoon in the mountains north of Sochi, where rain, snow and sleet fell alternately through soupy fog, and where 18-year-old U.S. ski racing prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin raced in the Olympic Games for the first time. She finished fifth in the giant slalom, .23 seconds off a gaudy medal podium that was comprised of three women who had all previously won Olympic gold medals.
And it hurt. "She gave me a hug and she was choked up," said Shiffrin's mother, Eileen, who helped coach her daughter at every level of her career until she made the U.S. Ski team two years ago. "She was almost crying because she didn’t win a medal. She came here for a medal, why wouldn’t she be disappointed?"
Three days before yesterday’s race, she handled a large press conference with ease, at one point telling reporters that she had anticipated their questions far in advance and written down her potential answers. With a disarming smile. Twenty minutes after emotionally embracing her mother Tuesday, she calmly told a group of U.S, journalists, "I wanted a gold, but I think this was meant to happen. It’s something I’m going to learn from. I’m just really in awe of the three girls [on the podium] and also the fourth girl, because she was ahead of me, too."
She said the right things. She almost always says the right things, which is rare for a teenager in any circumstance and remarkable for a teenager on a world athletic stage.
If that sounds like simplification of an obvious and expected reaction, it’s only because Shiffrin has behaved so far beyond her years for so long. She is the second-youngest U.S. ski racer ever to win a World Cup race (in December 2012 at age 16) and the youngest to win a world championship (slalom, last February). She has been called by many inside the sport the heir to Lindsey Vonn, the most accomplished U.S. ski racer in history. And through her rapid ascendance, she has shouldered success and expectation with uncommon maturity.
But she also wanted to win the race. Shiffrin is the No. 1-ranked slalom skier in the world and remains the gold medal favorite in Friday’s Olympic slalom. She is ranked sixth, and rapidly improving, in giant slalom, a longer race in which the turning gates are spaced further apart. She has advanced more quickly in slalom than in giant slalom, which is not unusual for talented young skiers. (Bode Miller was first a slalom skier, early in his career.) But her giant slalom has improved to the point where she is a threat to the best racers.
"I was really thinking that my first giant-slalom win would be at the Olympics," Shiffrin said. "And that would be a cool thing to accomplish."
Instead, it was Tina Maze of Slovenia who won the gold medal, her second of the games (she tied for gold with Dominique Gisin of Switzerland in the downhill and also won the giant slalom silver in 2010). In race decided by cumulative time over two runs, Maze essentially won the gold on her first run, drawing the No. 1 bib and taking advantage of the fresh, hard snow to torch the rest of the field by .52 seconds. Anna Fenninger of Austria, who had won the Super-G gold three days earlier, took the silver and Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, who won the 2010 giant slalom in Vancouver, skied the fastest second run to take bronze.
Shiffrin was the sixth skier down the race course on the first run. She finished in fifth place, .91 seconds behind Maze. “She made one mistake near the top, that cost her some time,” said Kilian Albrecht, a former Austrian Olympic racer who is Shiffrin’s agent.
The second run start order inverts the standings; Shiffrin would start fifth from last and Maze last. "I was thinking gold medal,” said Shiffrin. She pushed to pull back time in rough conditions -- the start of the second run was delayed 15 minutes and snow and sleet began falling during the run -- but missed on two turns in the final 30 seconds. “It boiled down to couple of turns where I slipped," said Shiffrin, "and the other girls arced it." She came down into third place behind Rebensburg, but was bumped off the medal stand by Nadia Fanchini of Italy and then pushed to fifth Maze, who won the gold by .07 seconds. Shiffrin not only missed bronze by just .23, but gold by only an even half-second.
Those closest to Shiffrin were happy to qualify her work. "She skied really well," said Albrecht. "It’s really tough conditions up there. The hill is not in great shape." During the current World Cup season, Shiffrin had finished second, third, sixth and eighth in four completed giant slaloms, and failed to finish a fifth. Albrecht said, “She basically skied to her level."
"She had a really good second run. She had a couple of turns that weren’t particularly clean and that probably cost her the race. And that’s what comes with being 18 years old," said Eileen Shiffrin. "Two-tenths out of a medal is not very much time. But she skied so hard. She really brought it today, for the conditions and the level of stress."
Both Shiffrin parents, Eileen and her husband Jeff, have taken pride in giving their children -- Mikalea and her older brother, Taylor, also a ski racer -- ample opportunity to become successful without placing desperate emphasis on race outcomes. "Process over results," Jeff said Tuesday. "I thought she did awesome. [The conditions] are not what she prepared for. I think it takes tons of experience to kill this."
Every point is valid, every lifeline worth taking. But if Mikaela is exceptionally grounded, she is also exceptionally driven. "She said to me, 'I didn’t quite get there, I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to,'" said Eileen. “This was so long in the making that I think she feels like she let us down and let her coach down… let her team down.”
This is what she feels: "Next Olympics I go to," said Shiffrin in the falling snow on Tuesday, "I’m sure as heck not getting fifth." In fact, her next Olympic race is three days away. Same hill, new race.