Mikaela Shiffrin snaps out of her recent slump and puts Olympics on notice
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea - By the time Mikaela Shiffrin doubled over Thursday afternoon and began to sob, we had learned all we needed to know. The final competitor in the women's giant slalom at the Pyeongchang Olympics, Manuela Moelgg of Italy, was still on the course. But the scoreboard, by the final interim split, showed Moelgg trailed Shiffrin by more than a second.
It was over. Gold was hers. So then, please, cry. With that performance, Shiffrin put these Games on notice: She is here to display her best skiing. And her best skiing is the best in the world.
"Now, we got the ball rolling," Shiffrin said. "I'm really excited for tomorrow."
Indeed, tomorrow. The slalom is Friday (8 p.m. ET Thursday). It is far and away her best event. The message to the field: Look out. She arrived here tired. Now, she is rested. Her confidence was rattled. Now, it is restored. For a stretch of races in the middle of the World Cup season, she seemed untouchable. Then, she flagged, flat-out exhausted.
"She wanted this medal," said France's Tessa Worley, among the pre-race favorites. "For sure, we could see it from the bottom."
We're one race in here, so tapping the brakes on otherworldly possibilities would be prudent. But after Shiffrin took the second Olympic gold of her young career - keep in mind, as you watch her this week, that her 23rd birthday isn't till next month - a historic Games could be afoot. Kick prudence to the curb.
Sound crazy, after Shiffrin has skied just two runs here? Maybe. But what Shiffrin needed to show Thursday - in an event that had been pushed back from Monday, one of several delays and disruptions in the Alpine skiing schedule - was that her most recent World Cup results were a fluke, not a trend. She straddled the new year by winning eight of nine events, unheard of in the anything-can-happen world of Alpine racing. What followed was a pre-Olympic jolt: seventh, did not finish, did not finish, seventh, did not finish.
"The wheels came off the bus a little bit," said her mother Eileen, who also serves as one of her coaches.
The task, before traveling to Korea, was to get out a jack and put them back on. Part of Shiffrin's development into the world's best female skier at the moment (we'll get to Lindsey Vonn, the GOAT, later in the week) has been her newfound ability to excel in multiple disciplines. Some of this is a natural progression from four years ago when, at 18, she won gold in Sochi in slalom. Last season, she showed her complete form by becoming the World Cup overall champion, a status that takes in finishes in all disciplines.
But competing in multiple disciplines means training in multiple disciplines. Shiffrin is a voracious worker, an athlete who skews toward taking one more training run rather than one fewer. At one point this season, Shiffrin had five straight victories. Do that, against the best in the world, and you feel invincible. But those five wins came over nine days, enough to make the sturdiest competitor wobbly-kneed.
"It did all catch up to her," Eileen Shiffrin said. "We could see it. But by then, it was too late, because she was so excited to race. It was like a new toy, all of these things. 'I can do parallel. I can do slalom. I can do GS - or I can do downhill. This is so fun!'"
When the fun stopped, the focus returned. After the final World Cup event before she traveled here - a make-your-jaw-drop slalom run, in which she led with three gates to go but astonishingly lost her balance - she took four days off, including travel. In Camp Shiffrin, this is uncharted territory.
Turns out it was necessary. When they got to South Korea and, eventually, got back on snow, the Shiffrin who had essentially spent two months staring down the rest of women's skiing returned.
"I could see the color in her face and the sparkle in her eye," said Mike Day, Shiffrin's coach with the U.S. Ski Team. "It was easy to see that her energy was back and the fight and fire were back."
So there remained just one question: Her nerves. Shiffrin is remarkably honest about battling back the thoughts that somehow, even after all this success, still creep into her head. Even Thursday came this: "There were moments where I thought, 'I don't know if I'm good enough to do this.'"
This is not unique to Shiffrin. These are the Olympics. Joining Shiffrin as favorites for medals Thursday: Worley and Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg, who lead the season-long World Cup giant slalom standings. But each made significant blunders during the first run in the morning, leaving Worley 14th and Rebensburg eighth headed into the afternoon. Shiffrin, in the first sign that her head was properly positioned, calmly skied to second, behind only Moelgg, who has never won a World Cup race in any discipline.
"For sure, I think the pressured [caught] me a little bit during my run," Worley said. " . . . I'm disappointed about that, because you really need to play at the Olympics."
Which is what Shiffrin, clearly, is here to do: prove her game can play. She now has what amounts to a won-loss record in Olympic races: 2-1 - Thursday's gold and the slalom gold from four years ago, with the one "loss" coming in the first Olympic race of her career, a fifth-place in the giant slalom in Sochi.
But because she has developed into a horse for all courses, who's to say what she can accomplish now? She is the prohibitive favorite in Friday's slalom. She will skip Saturday's super-G - the only discipline in which she does not have a podium finish in World Cup - and rest before retuning next week for the downhill and the Alpine combined.
Place your bets. In 2002, Croatia's Janica Kostelic produced the best Olympics for an Alpine racer: three golds and a silver. It seems absurd to think something like that is within Shiffrin's reach.
But is it?
"Going into this Olympics, I thought, 'Yeah, I could come away with multiple medals. I could also walk away with nothing,'" Shiffrin said. "And now I know that I have something, so that's a really nice feeling."
She has more than something. It is a gold medal. Her body is rested. Her mind is sound. Now, the ball is rolling. Where this might lead is impossible to say. But watch her, because each time she takes the hill, history is threatened, and gold is possible to grasp.