- Mikaela Shiffrin has been the best slalom skier in the world for five years, but she failed to medal in her best event in PyeongChang.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—It is almost as if Mikaela Shiffrin knew better than the rest of us what could lie ahead, and the peril in tallying up medals not yet won and history not yet made. Late Thursday afternoon beneath a setting sun on a cold, white mountainside thousands of miles from home, she won an Olympic gold medal in the giant slalom. Then she put that medal in perspective. There was momentum in the air, and a propulsive energy. Her best event, the slalom, would come next, and two more events after that. Perhaps she would win three gold medals or even four in one Olympics, which no skier had ever done. It was intoxicating to imagine. Shiffrin surely felt it, too, but instead she said, “I don’t want to assume that anything else is going to happen. Every day is a new day.”
Almost 24 hours later, on Friday afternoon in South Korea (late Thursday night in the U.S.), Shiffrin stood in the same place, addressing the same reporters. Again the sun was setting to her left and again a cold wind whistled down behind her. But this time, at the base of the mountain behind her, three skiers—gold medalist Frida Hansdotter of Sweden, silver medalist Wendy Holdener of Switzerland and surprise bronze medalist Katharina Gallhuber of Austria—were presented with tiny stuffed animals and gathered for photos, a precursor to the formal medal ceremony that would follow later that evening.
Shiffrin, the Olympic champion from Sochi, has been the best slalom skier in the world for five years, and this season has won seven of the nine slalom races contested in World Cup competition, often by wide margins. She was a prohibitive favorite in the slalom in PyeongChang, but she finished fourth, 0.08 seconds from a bronze medal and 0.40 seconds behind Hansdotter.
“This is going to sound so arrogant,” Shiffrin said after the race. “I know that I’m the best slalom skier in the world, because I’ve done that skiing so much. What I did in the race today was not even anywhere close to that, not even anywhere close to what I’ve been doing with my free-skiing.”
Shiffrin paused. Even if her words did sound arrogant, they were manifestly true. In the four years since Sochi, there have been 34 slalom races on the World Cup circuit. Shiffrin has won 26, including two world championships. At just 22 years old, she has accumulated 41 World Cup victories and 30 of them have come in slalom; only two women—Marlies Schild of Austria and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland—have won more slaloms in their entire careers. Mikaela Shiffrin is a transcendent slalom racer.
“But the race is when it counts,” she said Friday.
The race: Under another blue sky and temperatures in the high 20s, Shiffrin was fourth from the starting gate in the first of two slalom runs. She skied solidly, but not with the jaw-dropping dynamism and edge control that has defined her nascent career. She came down in second place, behind Holdender. Two more racers, Hansdotter and Swedish teammate Ann Swenn Larsson, also came down in front of Shiffrin, leaving her fourth, 0.48 seconds behind Holdener. Hansdotter is third in the World Cup slalom standings, and Holdener fourth; they were real contenders but have been unable to challenge Shiffrin for most of the season.
Shortly after Shiffrin hit the finish of the first run came word that NBC’s excellent on-course reporter, and former World Cup skier, Steve Porino, had reported seeing Shiffrin vomiting near the starting line. A year ago, Shiffrin struggled with anxiety at the start of races, often feeling the need to throw up, and occasionally doing so. There were two reasons: First, Shiffrin draws confidence from productive volume training and her training early last season had been inconsistent. This led to the second issue: a fear of letting people down. “I started to worry about disappointing people,” she told me last fall, for a profile that was published last month. “My team, the media. My feelings were scattered all over the place.”
That issue resurfaced before Friday’s first run. Asked if she was sick, Shiffrin said, “Nope. Just nerves.” She went on: “I dealt with that all season long last year. So when that actually happened, I was like… huh. I’ve dealt with this before, I’ll be fine. But when I ended up skiing the course, I ended up skiing really, really conservatively. That’s not something that deserves to win a medal.”
Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who is also her primary coach, saw the struggle coming. After winning her gold medal in giant slalom Thursday, Mikaela did dozens of interviews and arrived home at 5 pm. (All gold medalists do this.) Then she went to the medal ceremony and didn’t get back to the family’s rented home until 10 p.m. when she went to sleep. “Every night here I’ve been going to bed before 8:30,” Mikaela said.
In a post-race phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Eileen said, “The writing was on the wall [Thursday] night. I saw the look in here eyes when we got home from the medal ceremony and I just thought, Oh, no. She was exhausted. When we got to the start [Friday] morning, she just looked kind of empty. And you can’t be that way in slalom. You’ve got to be really sharp.”
After winning eight races in 22 days in late December and early January, Shiffrin failed to finish three of her last five races before the Olympics, including her last slalom, in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Shiffrin and her mother both attributed that slump to exhaustion. She took four days off in the run up to the Olympics, and then won a gold medal in her first race and seemed poised to win more.
The original Olympic race schedule would have helped her accomplish this. Shiffrin would have raced giant slalom last Monday, slalom Wednesday and then had two days off before, potentially, racing the super-G on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.). Four days later would come the downhill and two days after that, the Alpine combined. Instead, weather postponements forced Shiffrin to follow her gold medal race, and the long night that followed with another race that morning, and she struggled to perform at her customary level. (The giant slalom silver and bronze medalists did not race the slalom and none of the slalom medalists had won medals in the giant slalom.) Mikaela said, “After yesterday’s race was such an emotional high. I let myself feel too much. Peaks and valleys. Too much of a peak yesterday, too much of a valley today.’’
Eileen Shiffrin said that Mikaela’s anxiety is often prompted by exhaustion. Neither Eileen nor Mikaela asked for sympathy. It’s something that has happened in the past and Shiffrin has fought it by seeing a sports psychologist, smartly mixing training and racing and, of all things, tinkering with her playlist. But the Olympics asks athletes to manage extreme situations.
Shiffrin had a chance to recover from her mediocre first run. At 1:54 p.m. in PyeongChang (11:54 p.m. EST), she pushed out for her second run of slalom. Coming from behind to win is rare for Shiffrin; she had done it just twice in those 26 victories since Sochi, once in 2015 and once in January. Her second run was better than her first, and she skied into second place, 0.08 behind the 20-year-old Gallhuber, who has never made a World Cup podium and who skied the fastest second run in the field. But Hansdotter came down and pushed Shiffrin to third, and then Holdener knocked her off the podium.
“My mentality was better on the second run,” Shiffrin said. “I didn’t puke.” But she did slip at a gate halfway down the course. And while her skiing was better, it was not at the level of her best work. Others were shocked. “It was a big surprise,” said Gallhuber, “because she has been the best slalom skier all season.”
Shiffrin is not finished. She will skip the super-G on Saturday, a decision that was made before the slalom. She will race Wednesday’s downhill if she is among the four fastest U.S. skiers in training runs on Monday and Tuesday. “It’s a [U.S. Ski Team] coach’s decision,” said Eileen. “If the other girls are faster, they should race. We want the fastest team.” Lindsey Vonn and Shiffrin are the only U.S. speed racers with World Cup downhill victories this season, and the team’s depth was weakened when Jackie Wiles was injured just before the Olympics. It will be a surprise if Shiffrin is not among the four fastest qualifiers for the downhill. She will also race the Alpine combined next Friday (Thursday night in the U.S.), a race in which she will be among the favorites.
But of course, as Shiffrin said: The race is when it counts.