PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—In some distant Olympic future, the 2018 Games will be recalled as those in which a 22-year-old American ski racer named Mikaela Shiffrin won a gold and a silver medal, and became just the fourth American to win three career Alpine medals (along with Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn, who won her third at the same Games, at age 33). They will quantify Shiffrin’s performance in cold digits, and place her in the pantheon of the most accomplished U.S. skiers and at an age younger than the others in her company. These Games, and this point in Shiffrin’s life, will be recalled as historic.
They will not, in that distant future, be recalled as the Olympics in which Shiffrin was considered a threat to win at least three medals or possibly even four, and that some of those would conceivably be gold. They will not be recalled as the Olympics in which she began with a surprising gold medal in giant slalom, but then fell victim to nerves and exhaustion in the slalom, the event she has utterly dominated for four years, and in which she had won gold in Sochi in 2014. They will not be recalled as the Olympics in which a series of weather-related race postponements compressed the schedule to a point where Shiffrin skipped two races altogether—the super-G and the downhill. In time, they will recall this: Gold. And silver.
And they will recall what Shiffrin said as snowflakes feathered down on a mountainside 20 miles south of the Olympic cauldron: “To come away from these Olympics with two medals is insane.’’
Of course, in the present, the moment is more complex. Shiffrin did win two medals, a rare U.S. feat. Only Miller (twice, in 2002 and 2010), Mancuso (in 2010), Vonn (also in 2010) Andrea Mead Lawrence (in 1952) and Gretchen Fraser (1948) have won two Alpine medals in a single Games. (The details of each of these accomplishments, to my point, fades with time; they are all celebrated.) Late Thursday afternoon in Korea (early Thursday morning in the eastern U.S., as the dramatic USA-Canada women’s hockey game was unfolding more than an hour away), Shiffrin won her silver medal in the Alpine combined, one run of speedy downhill followed by one run of twisting, technical slalom, with the winner determined by total time.
The race was contested seven days after Shiffrin’s gold in giant slalom, on a different mountain, 45 minutes away. This is what took place after that race: a surprising fourth in the slalom, an event in which Shiffrin had won seven of nine races this World Cup season. She had vomited before the first run, attributing it to, she said, “just nerves” (and surely fatigue from a long night at the medal ceremony). She then decided to skip the super-G, which came one day after the slalom—too soon. And she decided to skip Wednesday’s downhill, despite improving from the first training run to the second and again from the second to the third.
“I think it was the right decision to skip the downhill race,” Shiffrin said. “Because I didn’t think I was at the level to really contend for a downhill medal. And watching those girls ski yesterday, I was like, yeah, that was the right decision for sure.” (Shiffrin won a World Cup downhill at Lake Louise in Canada, in December, but has only raced the event six times in her career.)
The rescheduling and subsequent decision-making chipped away at Shiffrin’s confidence. She is a gifted and hard-working racer whose 41 World Cup victories are tied for the most by a 22-year-old, but she also struggles with changes to her routine. The Olympics often bring a cascade of changes to routine, and these Games were no exception. “A lot of Americans were expecting a lot from her,” said Mike Day, one of Shiffrin’s coaches. “The Olympic Games are something where it’s difficult to manage expectations.”
Shiffrin, who is uncommonly open about her occasional struggles with anxiety, said, “It’s really been a mental rollercoaster. It was like someone was playing a game of ping-pong in my brain.” It’s fair to say that every skier in the field had to deal with the same issues that upset Shiffrin. Two other women won two Olympic medals: Wendy Holdener of Switzerland (bronze in the combined after a silver in the slalom) and Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway (silvers in both giant slalom and downhill). Shiffrin was the only woman with a gold and another medal, by strict definition the most successful female racer at the Games.
At her best, Shiffrin would have a serious chance at gold in the combined. Often that discipline is a battle between good downhillers fighting to ski slalom and good slalom racers trying to survive the harrowing downhill. Shiffrin is the best slalom skier in the world and an improving downhiller. “I thought her chances were good,” Day said.
The downhill segment went to Vonn, who skied at least as well—on the same course—as she had in getting her bronze in the downhill on Wednesday morning. She finished first among the 28 racers, 0.74 seconds in front of Mowinckel. “I think I skied as well today as I did yesterday,” Vonn said after the downhill. Vonn said she had watched video of downhill gold medalist Sofia Goggia of Italy, and said that damage to one of her skis may have cost her time in the downhill event on Wednesday. “Today I kept accelerating to the bottom of the course, and yesterday I just didn’t,” she said. “But that’s ski racing.”
Shiffrin came down three skiers after Vonn. She wobbled badly on a side-hill early, killing her momentum, and paid a price the rest of the way down. “I had too much of a bobble to feel comfortable sending it all the way down,” Shiffrin said. “After that I just tried to be solid on my skis and not take any crazy risks, because for what? I’m not on that level [in downhill] yet.”
Shiffrin hit the finish 1.98 seconds behind Vonn and 1.21 behind Michelle Gisin of Switzerland, in sixth place. She is capable of making up such gaps easily, on her best day. In the combined, skiers race the slalom in reverse order of finish in the downhill, meaning Shiffrin would be sixth from last and Vonn last. Shiffrin skied serviceably on the top of the slalom course before ripping the bottom to take the lead. (The course was relatively straight, short and easy by World Cup standards, making it more difficult for Shiffrin to separate herself.) But Gisin’s slalom put her past Shiffrin and into first by 0.97 seconds. Then Vonn, who no longer skis slalom regularly and said she was hoping for a “miracle,” missed a gate 12 seconds into the race. “I wanted to go out with guns blazing,” she said afterward. “[But] I knew I didn’t have the right preparation for this combined race.”
An hour after it was finished, Vonn and Shiffrin plodded through a long series of interviews. They were two generations of truly great ski racers, often standing only a few feet apart, answering questions from wildly different perspectives.
Vonn was asked about Shiffrin. The two are teammates in an individual sport. They do not train together and, 11 years apart, are not close friends. “It’s incredible what she’s been able to accomplish and she’s so young,” Vonn said. “I think she had the potential to do a lot more at these Games, but at the same time you can’t expect everything all the time.”
Then Vonn went deeper. “[Shiffrin] can ski for 10 more years and have a lot more medals and a lot more World Cups. But as I saw in my career [in addition to 81 World Cup wins, the second most in history, numerous surgeries and a body battered by years in her chosen sport], things can change quite quickly and you never know what’s going to happen. Ski racing has a way of taking a lot from you. That’s why you have to appreciate every moment you have.”
Shiffrin’s moment was this: An Olympics that she by turns defeated and was defeated by. Her future is an unwritten book. But this is forever: One gold, one silver.