PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It’s not easy to pinpoint when or how an athlete begins to acquire the aura of inevitability: Tiger Woods at the turn of the century felt inevitable. Michael Phelps at the 2008 Beijing Games. Chloe Kim just a few days ago. Now Mikaela Shiffrin is starting to feel inevitable.
After Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom Thursday with an aggressive, thrilling second run of 1:09.20, earning a combined time of 2:20.02, her mother, Eileen Shiffrin, told a story that gave a peek into just how inexorable Shiffrin’s dominance is beginning to seem to her fellow competitors. Sofia Goggia, who finished Thursday’s GS in 11th, had been training with Shiffrin the past few weeks, and in the days leading up to the event, she told NBC analyst Steve Porino that her jaw dropped when she saw Shiffrin’s GS training runs.
“That’s the gold medal,” Goggia told Porino. “We know who the gold medal is.”
“When your peer, somebody like Sofia, says something like that, you’re like, ‘Wow,'” Eileen said.
Keep in mind that Shiffrin, her mother, her coach, Mike Gay, and her sports psychologist, Loren Loberg, all said they considered the GS to be Shiffrin’s biggest challenge at these games. “I had a goal that I wanted to come to the next Olympics and be the best GS skier in the world or one of the best GS skiers,” Shiffrin said. “There’s like 15 girls whose skiing is good enough to win giant slalom.”
“The level of GS is off the charts right now,” said Eileen, who is also one of Shiffrin’s coaches. “This is a big deal for her to win this race, and I think GS is the fundamental event of alpine ski racing.”
The weather delays of recent days caused some nerves in the first run, but the quality of the field was showcased in the second half of the event. “I was watching all these girls go down in the second run and attack; everybody wanted gold,” Shiffrin told reporters. “It kind of left me no choice but to do the same thing.”
But her next gear is a move that, right now, almost no other skier in the world can make. Her work ethic is already gathering a mystique, but watching her reveals an enormous intuitive gift as well. Her lines are demanding and aggressive. She takes turns earlier and with more control. She wastes less time on her edges. She just plain looks different.
“Today I was trying really hard but I was also feeling the hill, I was feeling the mountain,” she said after her victory. “I was really letting it go as much as I could in that second run down. To get a gold medal skiing like that is really special.”
Thus far, the only thing that has been able to thwart her has been the weather. There was some thought that Shiffrin would attempt a Phelps-esque clean sweep of all the Alpine ski events: the GS, slalom, super-G, downhill and combined. But with the missed days and the new, compressed schedule — the GS, slalom and super-G will take place on back-to-back-to-back days — that ambitious goal appears to be in doubt.
“It’s hard to say being successful in multiple events is a disadvantage,” said Gay about the threat of fatigue to his pupil. “It’s daunting, but the World Cup calendar was also daunting this year, and I thought she did a great job with that.”
Shiffrin’s mother said afterward that her daughter would not compete in the super-G, but will race in the downhill, setting up a delicious showdown with Lindsey Vonn, widely regarded as the greatest female skier in history.
Vonn, 33, will not be looking to pass the torch. Her 81 World Cup wins put her just five off the all-time record of Ingemar Stenmark. But Vonn had only seven of those victories before she turned 23. Shiffrin, who turns 23 in March, already has 41 World Cup wins. Alpine skiing is an attritional, dangerous sport, and there are no guarantees that Shiffrin will eclipse Vonn.
Right now, though, it feels inevitable.