Mikaela Shiffrin, at only 18, shows poise in winning first Olympic gold
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – In the end, when the clock had stopped and frozen its numbers in perpetuity, the most important race of Mikaela Shiffrin’s life finished just like so many others. It mattered not that the stage was the grandest in her sport, the pressure most punishing or that at the finish they award medals of gold, silver and bronze that change a person’s life. It mattered not that she is much too young for all of this. Because she has always been the fastest skier on the hill, whether on a flat little run called Storrs Hill in New Hampshire or in the slalom race on a steep mountainside at the Winter Olympic Games
So on Friday night under a clearing black sky in the Caucasus Mountains north of Sochi, illuminated by the glow from towering banks of artificial light, Shiffrin, 18, won the gold medal in the Olympic slalom. She did it very much as if she was the best women’s slalom skier in the world, which she has been for more than year. Starting sixth in the first run of the two-run race, Shiffrin took a .49-second lead and like U.S. teammate Ted Ligety did in winning gold in the giant slalom two days earlier – though much more dramatically -- successfully protected that lead on the second run and won the gold by .53 seconds over Marlies Schild of Austria, the most successful slalom racer in World Cup history.
Shiffrin won because she is a transcendently fast ski racer keeping an appointment with a decade-old destiny, and despite a head cold that left her exhausted after both runs. But also because in the midst of nearly crashing on the second run, she saved her Olympics by calling up the skills learned in the last four years at a tiny but elite Vermont ski academy in a piece of training called the Norwegian Drill.
At 18, Shiffrin took down a series of youngests: the youngest U.S. alpine ski racer to win an Olympic gold medal (or any medal at all –Andrea Mead Lawrence was 19 when she won two gold medals 62 years ago); the youngest winner of a slalom gold medal, male or female; and the youngest Olympic alpine medalist in any event since Kathy Kreiner of Canada, also 18 but further from her 19th birthday, won a gold medal in the giant slalom in 1976. Among other U.S. alpine multiple medalists, Julia Mancuso was 21 when she first won a medal, Picabo Street was 22, Diann Roffe was 24 and Lindsey Vonn 25 when she won the downhill four years ago in Vancouver, while Shiffrin was a freshman in high school. Shiffrin is the first U.S. women's slalom medalist since Barbara Cochran in 1972.
But there was a moment.
There was a moment when all of this seemed destined to land in a pile of soft snow next to the slalom hill, at the foot of a coach or a course worker. And if Shiffrin someday takes down every significant alpine record -- ``She will definitely win many, many races,’’ said Maria Reisch of Germany, who has won four Olympics medals (two in Sochi) and was fourth in the slalom as the defending gold medalist -- it is that moment that will define her first gold medal.
Shiffrin had taken that .49-second advantage over second-place Reisch on the first run; Schild was in fifth place, a surprisingly distant 1.38 seconds back. ``I was too far behind Mikaela,’’ said Schild, who at 32 become the oldest slalom medalist in Olympic history.
In the second run of slalom races, the top 30 finishers race in inverted order, so like Ligety in the GS, Shiffrin would start 30th. Often courses deteriorate as racers ski over them, but it was clear this was not happening in the cold night air; four of the five starters from 20 through 25 took the lead, ending with Schild. Where Ligety skied conservatively in his gold medal race (almost too conservatively, as he nearly crashed), Shiffrin chose to charge. ``She lost once or twice this year when she didn’t attack,’’ said Shiffrin’s agent, former Austrian Olympic slalom skier Kilian Albrecht. ``That really helped her.’’
Shiffrin sustained a 1.19-second lead over Schild at the first timing interval, but approximately 25 seconds into the run, as she attacked a left-footed turning gate, her outside ski lifted off the snow and Shiffrin fell backward. In this position, the vast majority of racers would either fall, fail to negotiate the next gate or lose too much time. For an instant, she looked like a recreational skier who had ventured over her head.
``When her ski went up, I almost died,’’ said Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who helped coach her daughter through much of her career and had spent the three hours between runs calming Mikaela’s nerves by doing word search puzzles together.
Roland Pfeifer is the Austrian who was hired three years ago by the U.S. Ski team to coach the so-called ``technical’’ (slalom and giant slalom) skiers, but more specifically because the team knew that Shiffrin was coming along. He was with Eileen Shiffrin when Mikaela erred. ``I thought it was over,’’ Pfeifer said. ``Sometimes, Mikaela, when she’s really hammering it, she gets a little in the back seat. She is overdoing it and the skis get a little too hot and shoot out. She overdid it on the second run, and that was brutal.’’
Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, watched a video screen from bleachers at the bottom of the hill. ``I thought, Uh-oh,’’ recalled Jeff, ``her skis are not supposed to be in that position.’’ The crowd gasped.
Mikaela was briefly stunned: ``Yeah, that was pretty terrifying,’’ said Shiffrin. ``Here I am, I’m gonna win my first medal of the Olympics… Guess not!’’ She switched to an internal voice: No, do not do that. See this through. ``The whole goal was to ski my best and put on a show for everybody watching,’’ she said. ``Then in the middle of the run, I had a little bit of a brain fart.’’
Yet as quickly as Shiffrin seemed certain to crash, she was back in racing position. The save was reminiscent of a young Bode Miller, who like Shiffrin was capable of generating more speed than most racers and also, like Shiffrin, often got into his back seat and developed a stunning ability to stay in the race. ``That wasn’t luck,’’ said Albrecht. ``That was her ability to do this. She has recovered many times like that. She’s just crazy.’’
It also wasn’t luck, because Shiffrin had practiced it. Shiffrin’s story is well known. If her path to such youthful success has been swift, it has also been circuitous. The daughter of avid and talented skiers, in Shiffrin’s short life, she moved from her birthplace in the shadow of Colorado’s Vail Mountain to a rural house in New Hampshire, back to Colorado and then to a ski academy in northern Vermont … all by the age of 13. But it was at Burke Mountain Academy that she blossomed into the best women’s skier of her generation under coach/headmaster Kirk Dwyer.
And one of the drills that Dwyer emphasized for Shiffrin was called the Norwegian Drill, in which a racer practices turning on the inside (downhill ski), which is exactly the position that Shiffrin found herself in when her left ski shot into the air. ``She did that drill innumerable times,’’ said Dwyer in a text message. ``Making the initiation of the turn on the inside ski. She also trained to see mistakes as opportunities.’’
Just after the recovery, Shiffrin’s lead had shrunk from 1.19 seconds to .59 seconds, but in a mind-boggling display of cool and determination, Shiffrin again built speed. She lost just .06 seconds more all the way to the bottom to stay well clear of Schild, whose videos she had studied with Dwyer at Burke and who she now regularly takes down. ``I always want to challenge her to take it a step up,’’ said Shiffrin, ``and see if I can do what she does, but better.’’ In the finish corral, Shiffrin skied a wide, circular arc and then raised her poles into the air.
``What she did today,’’ said Albrecht, ``she had so much pressure. She took her heart in her hands and brought it down.’’
Shiffrin’s gold medal was the fifth of the Olympics for the U.S Ski team, matching Sarajevo in 1984 and second to the eight it won four years ago in Vancouver. It has been a sensational second week; after five events, the U.S. had only Mancuso’s surprise bronze medal in the combined.
And for Shiffrin, the gold further elevated a career that has been on fast rails for five years, when she was training afternoons at Burke (where her older brother, Taylor, was a full-time student) and getting home-schooled by her mother in an nearby condominium. The Shiffrins emphasized, as Jeff likes to say, ``process over results,’’ but Mikaela also delivered results. She is the second-youngest U.S. skier to win a World Cup race and last February won the slalom world championship at 17. ``She’s just a great skier technically,’’ said Reisch. ``And also mentally strong. It’s really impressive what she has reached at that age." (Pfeifer said that Shiffrin is so professional ``she is probably 25 already.’’)
But for Americans, it is all about the Olympics. Shiffrin arrived in Sochi confident, but while finishing a respectable fifth in the giant slalom on Tuesday, nearly cried in her mother’s arms at the finish, disappointed at not winning a medal and perhaps having underestimated the pressure. ``That was like a thousand World Cup races,’’ Mikaela told her mother that day. She picked up a sore throat in the intervening three days, and a cold that weakened her slightly.
And she was nervous again on race day, even around her family at the team hotel. ``No matter how steely you are,’’ said Jeff, an anesthesiologist, ``those nerves are in there. You saw people [in the slalom race] with a lot more experience than [Mikaela] lose their battle with nerves.’’
Those nerves disappeared in a first run that’s best described as professional. As she rode the chairlift for the start of the second run, she felt herself getting emotional. ``This actually might happen,’’ she recalled saying to herself. ``And I don’t know how I’m going to feel if it does.’’
That will take time. There are many more races ahead, and perhaps many more medals. Yet nothing is promised, even to one so gifted. So she will remember the first, and with it the remarkable, desperate moment that kept it alive.