PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—In the end, it is the Olympic Games that decide when the moment is right for a particular gold medal. It is not the athlete, the coach or the family. Those people can all try, and wish, and pray, but none of those things will ensure that a medal hangs from the neck. That will happen only at the serendipitous intersection of talent and passion and time. U.S. ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin has always controlled the first two of those elements and battled fiercely with the third. She was, at age 17, the youngest U.S. skier to win a World Cup race. She was, at 18, four years ago in Sochi, the youngest Olympic slalom gold medalist in history.
But in Russia, she did not win a gold medal in giant slalom and, in fact, did not win any medal in that event. Racing in sleet and rain and fog, she finished fifth, 0.23 seconds from a bronze medal and 0.53 seconds from gold. The three women on the podium that day all had previously won Olympic medals. On that day, Shiffrin hugged her mother, Eileen, who is also her head coach, and choked back years. “She came here for a medal,” said Eileen then, her hair drenched. “Why wouldn’t she be disappointed?”
So much has happened in the four years since that cold, wet afternoon in Sochi, when the sky was so grey that it looked like night. Mikaela Shiffrin has grown into one of the best ski racers in history. She has won 34 races on the World Cup, the sport’s elite professional circuit, and at the age of 22, has accumulated 41 World Cup wins (only 10 skiers of either gender have won more). She has won three world championships, all in slalom. But gradually she has expanded her repertoire—this year she has won a downhill race and also two giant slaloms (the fifth and sixth of her World Cup career). There is little doubt that, barring injury or complacency, she can threaten the most hallowed records in the sport’s history.
But there is nothing like the Olympic Games. On Thursday afternoon in South Korea (Wednesday night in the U.S.), after two days of delays caused by high winds, and on a course that sliced between two stands of barren trees, Shiffrin reversed her Olympic giant slalom disappointment from four years earlier by taking the gold medal, by a margin of 0.39 seconds over Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway. Shiffrin won because she skied a solid first run, good for second place, while other top contenders shrank from the moment. And then she crushed the second run, far better than those who had skied well on the first. At the finish, she dropped to her knees and dipped her head earthward, as if in prayer.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” she said afterward. “I really went for it on the second run. It’s like, my best effort is good enough, and now I have Olympic gold in giant slalom.”
It was a historic victory. Shiffrin became just the third American to win two career gold medals in Alpine skiing. (The other two are Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won two golds in 1952; and Ted Ligety, who won a gold in 2006 and another in 2014). Shiffrin can stand alone, adding another gold, with a victory in the slalom, Friday morning in South Korea (Thursday night in the U.S.).
The slalom will be the second of Shiffrin’s four events in PyeongChang. Her mother said after Thursday’s victory that Mikaela will not race Saturday morning in the super-G, the first of the two so-called “speed” events (the other is next Tuesday’s downhill). The compression of the schedule caused by delays would have forced Shiffrin to race giant slalom, slalom and super-G on three consecutive days, and she would have faced the super-G with only one training run, on the day of the race. Speed specialists like Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. have been training for days for the super-G. “She can’t possibly do it,” Eileen said yesterday. “A race tomorrow, then the super-G and then downhill training [Monday and Tuesday]. She can’t do the super-G.” The point is that Shiffrin could do it, but it would compromise her chances in both the super-G and the downhill.
Now Shiffrin will race in Friday’s slalom, an event in which she has won six of the eight races on the World Cup schedule this season, and 34 races since the Sochi Olympics. Ski racing can be a wildly unpredictable endeavor but in the slalom, Shiffrin is among the heaviest favorites of the 2018 Games. In addition to the downhill, Shiffrin will also race on Friday, Feb. 23, in the Alpine combined, in which she will also be the favorite. She can win as many as four medals, some gold. No Alpine skier has ever won four medals at a single Olympics; only three (Toni Sailer of Austria in 1956, Jean-Claude Killy of France in 1968 and Janica Kostelic of Croatia in 2002) have won three golds in a single Games.
Shiffrin had been scheduled to first race on Monday (Sunday night in the U.S), in the giant slalom. That race was postponed on the morning of the race because of high winds. Next on the schedule was to be the slalom, on Wednesday (Tuesday night in the U.S.). Same thing. Shiffrin—and all the racers—struggled to manage the postponements. “The day of the first postponement, she was nervous all day,” said Eileen. “And it’s tiring being nervous all day. The next race, the slalom, she was like, ‘I don’t care how hard it’s blowing or what way it’s blowing, I just want to race.’ Today she was charged up. It’s the Olympics.”
Race day was calm and clear, under a blue sky. On the first run, Shiffrin came out of the start house seventh and skied cleanly, finishing 0.20 seconds behind the surprise leader, Manuela Moelgg of Italy, who is ranked seventh in the World Cup standings. More significantly, World Cup leader and two-time Olympic giant slalom medalist Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany and World Cup No. 2 Tess Worley of France both skied poorly by their standards, coming down eighth and 14th, respectively.
“The pressure of the Olympics caught me a little bit,” said Worley afterward. She rallied to ski the second-fastest second run, but the damage had been done and she finished seventh.
After her first run, Shiffrin told reporters, “I skied well, but I think I can go a little bit harder. Nothing to hold back on the second run.” (As an indication of Shiffrin’s standards, Worley said, “Mikaela attacked on both runs. She wanted this medal. You could see that.”)
Between runs, Shiffrin free-skied the men’s giant slalom course, on an adjacent run, seeking to sustain her rhythm. She is accustomed to training volume. “[Race officials] probably weren’t happy with us for doing that,” said Eileen, after hugging her husband, Jeff. Team Shiffrin has always been a family affair. Brother Taylor was also nearby. Mikaela’s second run was clean too and aggressive. She started with a 0.37-second lead over Mowinckel, increased that to 0.87 seconds near the bottom and then wobbled on one gate, losing more than half that cushion before crossing the finish line. Only Moelgg had a shot to knock her off, but she slopped up her run, falling to eighth overall.
“I have a love-hate relationship with giant slalom,” said Shiffrin. “It’s been difficult for me to find a really good rhythm. I need to train it a lot, I need to be in a good mood.”
The gold medal put to rest the idea that Shiffrin peaked during an insane hot streak in December and January in which she won eight World Cup races in 22 days, including five consecutive slaloms. She had failed to win in her last six races before PyeongChang and had failed to finish three of those, including a slalom. Her mother attributed that to fatigue from intense racing and training across five disciplines for the first time in her career.
“She was like, ‘I can do slalom, I can do parallel, I can do downhill,’ and she was having fun,” said Eileen, “but all those races and all that training caught up to her.” Mikaela took four days off in late January before coming to PyeongChang, unheard of for her (although some of those days included travel). The rest was clearly invigorating.
And now Shiffrin is off and running on what could be a historic Olympics. Yet in the glow of her gold, she instead sought perspective. A gold medal is a gold medal all by itself, not the first of two or three or four. “I don’t want to assume that anything is going to happen,” she said. “And every day is a new day. I could have come away from here with multiple medals or I could have come away with nothing. Now I have something.”
Something good. Something gold. And something now.