Mikaela Shiffrin stays focused on gold
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- She was under the lights and she was going for it. U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin wanted to put her foot on the throat of the second slalom run Friday and win an Olympic gold medal leading wire to wire, with flair.
She rocketed down the first part of the course. She was on the right pace. And then she wasn't. As she sliced around a gate where the snow was a little softer, her weight tipped back and her left ski shot out from under her for an instant.
An audible gasp went up from the spectator stands and the media pens at the base of the hill.
"It's over," thought her coach, Roland Pfeifer.
"I think we all had a moment when we definitely had a heart attack," her mother, Eileen, said.
The sliver of space between Shiffrin's ski and the snow was slim, but it felt like she was leaning over the edge of a canyon. The preternaturally composed 18-year-old felt her adrenaline spike into the red zone. "That was pretty terrifying," she said.
As Shiffrin fought to recover, she had time for only one thought, bolstered by years of physical and mental muscle memory, simple as the slip of paper curled inside a fortune cookie.
"No, do not do that. Do not give up," she told herself, and reporters later. "You see this through.
"My whole goal was just to keep my skis moving. I was watching the figure skating last night, and it seemed like the difference between the girls -- and I know nothing about figure skating, so if any of them hear this, they're gonna be like, 'She's so dumb. She doesn't know how hard it is' -- it seemed like the difference between the girls who get the win and the ones who don't is they keep their skates moving.
"So I was trying to take that into today and keep my skis moving no matter what."
Slalom skiers aren't judged on style, so Shiffrin didn't have to worry about looking pretty. She corrected herself with a "hockey stop" -- her words -- that was splendid in its force and its grip on the moment as well as the snow.
Shiffrin tore through the bottom of the course, then frantically searched the big video scoreboard for the numbers that would tell her if her combined time had been faster than that of Austria's Marlies Schild, the woman she wanted to be when she grew up.
In fact, the two swapped places. The brief loss of control dropped Shiffrin, the afternoon leader, to sixth best of the second run, while Schild lay down the fastest time after having been sixth in the afternoon. Shiffrin's combined time of 1 minute, 44.54 seconds was .53 better than Schild and good for a gold medal.
In another bit of symmetry, Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion in history and the first U.S. woman to win the event since 1972, while the 32-year-old Schild became the oldest medalist in the discipline.
"I think I won the silver medal. I did not lose any gold medal," Schild said. "She's a great girl. She picks out the good things from other racers, and I think she picked them out from me."
Shiffrin acknowledged that Friday, calling the four-time Olympic medalist "the inspiration for my slalom skiing."
"I always wanted to challenge her to take it a step up and see if I can do what she does but better," Shiffrin said. "I'm just so excited to be able to share this moment with her, too."
Shiffrin is a student who makes teachers want to take her on and possesses the kind of talent and drive that alters the arcs of people around her. Her parents -- Jeff, an anesthesiologist who skied at Dartmouth, and Eileen, a masters ski champion, shaped their family's life around the sport after Mikaela followed her brother Taylor down the hill.
Pfeiffer, the U.S. Ski team's head technical coach, met Shiffrin when she was 16 and knew at first sight she was the kind of athlete the universe bestows on a coach once in a career: present and focused for every training session.
In a December interview, he said what sets her apart is the workload she can shoulder and the playfulness she brings to skiing. "Other athletes have to put in so much more effort to do the same thing," he said.
Shiffrin benefited Friday from deserved and cumulative confidence, having topped the World Cup standings on the circuit last year and on the way to doing the same this season.
Between runs, she told her mother she was "just going to go ski slalom and not worry about all of this anymore," but riding the chairlift up for the night finale, she felt the joy and import of the occasion and cried.
Her slip made the race interesting, and the race will heighten interest in her for the next four years. A world championship will take place in her backyard in Vail, Colo., next March. If she handles the attention with the same aplomb as she handled what the hill threw at her Friday, she'll be fine.
"I'm still going to be the same girl, still going to be looking for speed on the mountain," she said.
So far, the mountain looks willing to spill its secrets.