KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Standing in a steady downpour at the bottom of the giant slalom course, Mikaela Shiffrin called her Olympic debut “pretty spectacular.” That’s how unpredictable weather conditions and slushy snow looked to the 18-year-old American ski racing prodigy.
The day ended with a soaked Shiffrin in fifth place, half a second behind gold medalist Tina Maze of Slovenia and .23 seconds out of the bronze-medal spot.
“Who gets to race their first Olympics in rain this bad when there’s still snow on the ground?” said Shiffrin with a smile.
True enough, though weather in the Sochi Games has been creating all kinds of unusual scenarios for competitors in the mountains, from cross-country skiers with cut-off sleeves to fog-related postponements. The first run of the women’s giant slalom Tuesday took place in snow on the higher sections and steady rain lower down. Sixth-place finisher Maria Pietila-Holmner likened the race surface to “skiing on sugar.”
After being originally moved earlier, the second run of the giant slalom was delayed 15 minutes because of driving snow and sleet.
Still, waiting in the start house for her second run, Shiffrin focused on her task, not the weather.
“I’m thinking gold medal,” said Shiffrin. “I made up some time. End of the first run, I was nine-10ths off, and the second run, I was five-10ths off.
“It boils down to a couple turns, mostly on the pitch, I think, where I just clipped my skis a little more and the other girls arced it. That’s what I have to work on.
“I wanted a gold, but I think this was meant to happen. It’s something I’m going to learn from. Next Olympics I go to, I’m sure as heck not getting fifth.”
After both runs at the Rosa Kutor Alpine Center, Shiffrin wished a couple of turns had been cleaner, including one particularly poor turn early in her first run that cost her some speed. She lost time on the flatter portions of the course.
Although Shiffrin has two World Cup podium finishes in giant slalom this season, she ranks sixth in the world in the event. Her specialty is slalom, and she will enter Friday’s slalom competition as the No. 1-ranked skier in that discipline and the gold-medal favorite. But she arrived in Sochi with confidence in giant slalom, too, and knew that conditions could make for unexpected finishes.
“I was really thinking that my first GS win would be at the Olympics and that would be such a cool thing to accomplish,” said Shiffrin. “But it’s something that I accept, that I got fifth today.
“There are four girls who skied better than I did. I’m real excited to analyze their skiing and analyze mine and try to go win.”
Her father watched the competition in the rain and offered his own postrace analysis, believing the weather may have given veteran skiers a slight edge.
“These are the kind of conditions that years of experience help you with,” said Jeff Shiffrin. “With all sorts of different snow conditions, raining and fog and dah-dah-dah, I think some of the older ladies were able to turn that a little bit to their advantage.”
The giant slalom marked the 30-year-old Maze’s second win in these Games. Earlier, she tied for the downhill gold, reclaiming the form that saw her dominate the World Cup circuit last year and win the overall World Cup title in 2013.
She did not have a giant slalom win this winter, but placed second at the 2013 World Championships in the event, earned top honors at the 2011 World Championships, and won silver in giant slalom at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Austria’s Anna Fenninger, 24, took silver in the giant slalom, finishing .07 seconds behind Maze and adding to the gold she won in super-G.
Given all the precipitation, Maze celebrated her win with a belly flop onto the snow, then pretended to swim through the slush.
“It was not an easy day because the weather is playing games with us,” said Maze. “But I don’t care if it’s rainy or if it’s sunny.”
For Shiffrin, the tricky conditions brought to mind skiing in New England. She spent part of her childhood in Lyme, N.H., and heading down the slopes at Storrs Hill, Dartmouth Skiway, and Whaleback Mountain. Then she attended Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vt.
So when asked if she had ever encountered weather like she saw in the giant slalom, Shiffrin said, “Several times, yeah. It’s pretty much all I can remember from Vermont, which isn’t fair because there are also a lot of nice days. But you remember the worst days more.”
Shiffrin, who has been toughened by New England winters, added, “It wasn’t necessarily the worst-case scenario because the visibility was much better than I thought it was going to be. And the conditions were really good for how much it’s precipitating.
“I think it was a pretty fair race. I’m really in awe of the top three girls and also the fourth girl because she was ahead of me.”
Fellow Americans Resi Stiegler (29th) and Megan McJames (30th) also fought through the rain and snow.
“On a day like today, the runs are not going to be pretty,” said McJames. “It’s just who can throw it down the hill with the best.
“Everyone is pretty soaked, through. The top is snowing and the bottom is raining. That makes it differing snow conditions the whole way down.
“My plan was to just go for it. Technique and tactics kind of go out the window. You just try to go for it and be fearless as much as possible.”
Long after the race finished, the steady rain turned into a steady snow throughout the Alpine Center, holding the promise of better conditions for the women’s slalom.
After unseasonably warm weather in the mountains, Tuesday’s snowfall was the first of the Olympics.
With his daughter’s debut out of the way, Jeff Shiffrin said the entire experience — the weather, the media attention, the result — “sets her up better for slalom because now there’s no distractions.”
Mikaela will approach the slalom in much the same way she did the giant slalom.
“I’m going to do the same thing I tried to do today,” she said, “just race from the very start to the very finish. I’m going to try and take as much speed into the slalom as possible.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@ShiraSpringer