PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—There are two stories to every sport at the Olympics. There is the story for the world, and there is the story endemic to whatever country is telling the tale. Sometimes those stories are similar, and sometimes they are dramatically different. Think: Hockey in 1980. One story in the U.S. and a very different story in the Soviet Union.
Here at the 23rd Winter Olympics, Alpine skiing was dominated by two of the most ski-centric nations in history—Switzerland with six medals (one gold) and Austria with four (three gold)—and by another country that has been winning Alpine medals regularly for the last eight Games, Norway, with six medals (one gold). Marcel Hirscher of Austria, as expected, was the individual star of the Games, the only racer with two individual gold medals, in Alpine combined and giant slalom, but also a stunning DNF in the slalom, where he was a heavy favorite. At home, where Alpine racing is a national obsession, his failure to win a third gold was a minor catastrophe. The most remarkable story of the whole competition was the shocking winner of the women’s super-G: Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic, who was ranked No. 43 in the world in the event and is a world champion snowboard racer—a cross-cultural success that flabbergasted the sport. (One note: There is also an Alpine team competition on Saturday in Korea; nations and individuals will win more medals, but none of the top U.S. racers are competing.)
Meanwhile, there was the U.S. Skiing medals have been rare for the U.S., but they are remembered with a fondness out of proportion to their quantity. U.S. racers won three medals in PyeongChang, all women. Mikaela Shiffrin, 22, took gold in the giant slalom and silver in the Alpine combined; Lindsey Vonn, 33, took bronze in the downhill.
Shiffrin’s gold-silver performance was, by definition, the best of any woman at the Games. Two other women won two medals each, but neither won a gold: Raghnild Mowinckel of Norway (two silvers) and Wendy Holdener of Switzerland (a silver and a bronze). Shiffrin’s work here, of course, has been treated to all sorts of subjective grading, because of high expectations coming into the Games, both her own and others’. Shiffrin had hoped to contend for gold medals in three events, and if everything went perfectly, perhaps a fourth, or in some magical scenario, a fifth. But weather delays compressed the schedule and forced her out of her comfort zone almost from the start. The giant slalom, in which she was considered a strong contender, and the slalom, in which she was a heavy favorite, were originally scheduled for the first Monday and Wednesday of the Games. Instead they were contested back-to-back, on the first Thursday and Friday. Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom, but finished fourth in the slalom, a victim of nerves and weariness.
“If nothing else worked out, the slalom was going to work out,’’ said Shiffrin in a closing press conference on the final Friday of the Games. “I was feeling so good about my slalom coming in here. But then the delay. I had no idea how to handle that.’’ The super-G came a day after the slalom, the third consecutive women’s race. Shiffrin skipped it. Then she skipped the downhill four days later, after making two training runs, the first better than the second. “I didn’t think I was going to be a better medal contender than the other [U.S.] girls who have been racing speed,’’ she said.
Shiffrin returned in the Alpine combined, on the last day of individual Olympic Alpine competition, and won a silver medal. Even that was mildly bittersweet. After a rocky downhill run, Shiffrin trailed Vonn by almost two seconds, but there was little chance that Vonn would complete the slalom in a competitive time—she rarely skis the event at this point in her career (she missed a gate 12 seconds into the race). After the downhill segment, Shiffrin trailed eventual gold medalist Michelle Gisin of Switzerland by 1.21 seconds, a surmountable challenge. But the slalom course was short, and easy, which made it difficult for Shiffrin to make up time. She didn’t help by skiing less than her best at the top of the run before crushing the bottom. She finished nearly a full second behind Gisin, but easily in front of Holdender, who won bronze.
Shiffrin’s performance at the Games has already been analyzed endlessly. Against the weight of expectation, gold and silver will be painted by some as a disappointment. In a vacuum, it’s a terrific achievement by a skier who is still very young. She became just the fourth U.S. skier to win three career Olympic medals, after Bode Miller (six), Julia Mancuso (four) and Vonn (three), and did it much younger than any of the others. She is also one of only three U.S. skiers—Ted Ligety and Andrea Mead Lawrence are the others—with two career Olympic golds. In a fast and dangerous sport, there are no guarantees moving forward, but Shiffrin could render many of the U.S. Olympic records obsolete.
These were likely Vonn’s last Olympics, and dragging her battered body to a bronze was rightly hailed as gold of a different shine. She has one goal remaining in the sport: Taking down Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s career record of 86 career World Cup wins. Vonn has 81, and will chase the record next season. “I won four races this year, and I think next year will go a lot better without the Olympics to worry about,’’ said Vonn. “I think next season I can get it, because, I’m not getting any younger.’’
(The elephant in the room here is Shiffrin, who is 11 years younger than Vonn, and already has 41 World Cup wins. At her current pace she could be in the 80s before the 2022 Olympics. But again… ski racing. No guarantees.)
As for the larger U.S. picture, a program that won just one medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano (Picabo Street’s gold in super-G) and then rose to win a remarkable eight in Vancouver 12 years later appears to be headed into fallow times, save for Shiffrin. Vonn is highly unlikely to ski another Olympics. Ligety, who finished a game fifth in the combined and a disappointing 15th in the giant slalom after winning gold in the event in 2014 (he had two serious injuries in the interim), is also finished with the Olympics at age 33. Two-time super-G medalist Andrew Weibrecht failed to finish that race in PyeongChang and is 32 years old.
Miller and Mancuso were both at the Games, both working for NBC and retired from skiing. The U.S. Alpine cabinet looks bare. On the women’s side, 25-year-old Jackie Wiles landed on two podiums this season, but was injured late in the season. Alice McKennis, 28, won a World Cup downhill four years ago. Breezy Johnson has a fourth on the World Cup this season and was seventh in the Olympic downhill.
Among the men, after Ligety and Weibrecht, and 35-year-old Steven Nyman, who missed the Olympics with a torn ACL, no skier has ever finished in the top three in a World Cup race.
Four years is forever. But athletes like Ligety, Mancuso, Miller and Vonn are not easily replaced, or replaced at all. There is work to be done, or Shiffrin could find herself the only one in a U.S. uniform fighting for medals in four years. If so, it will probably be against Austria, Switzerland and Norway. Again.