She was attacking the course the way she always does — and suddenly Mikaela Shiffrin was down and out of her first event at these Olympics Monday morning.
“I had a small, small mistiming when I really went to push on my edges, and that makes all the difference,” said the defending champion after she crashed out of the first run of the women’s giant slalom.
It was, Shiffrin observed, “really awful timing of a really frustrating mistake.”
But she put it behind her because she had to. The world’s most versatile skier has four more races on her card: Wednesday’s slalom, Friday’s Super G, and next week’s downhill and combined. She could win a medal in all of them — or none of them.
Such is the random nature of sports on ice and snow, and the enduring allure of the Winter Games. A couple of hours after Shiffrin went down, France’s Johan Clarey, a 41-year-old downhiller who’d never made the podium at three previous Olympics, grabbed the men’s silver medal on a nearby slope.
“I was pushing, pushing, taking a lot of risk,” said Clarey, who missed the gold by one-tenth of a second. “I know I only had one chance left in my career to get a medal in the Olympics.”
Alpine skiers will tell you that winning the World Cup downhill title is more significant because it is a season-long test of excellence on slopes across Europe and North America. But there’s an undeniable thrill to winning a race that takes place only once every four years and rewards the athlete who is best on the day — and only that day.
That’s how the Boys of Winter approached their hockey game against the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980. They were the kids next door up against the Big Red Machine. Nobody expected them to win, so there was no reason for them to play cautiously.
“It was simply a matter of going for it,” said Mark Johnson after he and his teammates produced the most shocking upset in Olympic history.
Competing conservatively usually is a ticket to fifth place at Olympus. But that was Australian short-track speedskater Steven Bradbury’s entire strategy in Salt Lake City when he came out of nowhere to win the 1,000 meters.
All he needed was for several rivals to crash in the semis, and all of them in the final.
“To have four guys go down all at once is not a commonplace thing,” said Bradbury, who cruised across the finish line alone after the other contenders wiped themselves out in the final turn.
The Winter Games hold intrigue because unexpected faces often end up watching their flags go up during the medal ceremony. In PyeongChang four years ago, Czech snowboarder Ester Ledecká entered the Super G for fun and ended up winning the gold medal by a hundredth of a second ahead of Austrian defending champion Anna Veith.
“This must be some mistake,” said Ledecká, who went on to win the parallel giant slalom in snowboarding.
The form charts don’t always hold at Olympus. Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the World Cup downhill leader, finished fifth Monday. Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr, the reigning global champion, was eighth.
Shiffrin wasn’t the favorite in the giant slalom. Sweden’s Sara Hector, who won her country’s first gold in the discipline in three decades, was. But Shiffrin figured to be on the podium somewhere. She’d earned silver in the GS at last year’s world championships and had won a couple of Cup races this season.
Shiffrin didn’t do anything different than she usually does.
“I skied a couple of good turns,” she said, “and I skied one turn a bit wrong and really paid the hardest consequences for that.”
At least Shiffrin didn’t break bones or tear ligaments and put herself out of the Games on Day 1. Her teammate Breezy Johnson, who figured to make the downhill podium, damaged a knee last month and stayed home. And Italy’s Sophia Goggia, the defending downhill champion, tore up hers in a fall in Cortina and is racing against time to get back into form.
Shiffrin, whose better chance will be in the slalom, quickly turned the page.
“I am not going to cry about this because that is just wasting energy,” she said after her first DNF in the event since before the last Olympics.
Her skill in both technical and speed races gives her a medal shot in all five events. Shiffrin made the podium in everything but downhill (which she didn’t enter) at last year’s world championships in Cortina.
Still, she’s painfully familiar with the vagaries of weather, how wind or heavy snow can scramble her schedule as it did in Korea last time. Shiffrin won gold in the GS and silver in the combined, but withdrew from the downhill and Super G.
If she makes even one podium in Beijing, Shiffrin will tie Julia Mancuso for most Alpine skiing medals (four) by an American woman. If she wins, she’ll have the most golds (three).
Not that there’s any pressure, but Shiffrin is the only serious contender the US Alpine team has on the women’s side. If she rebounds to win four medals, the Games will be a success for the Americans. If not …
That’s why Monday’s missed opportunity bugged her. There will be other, better podium chances. But this was one that got away.
“I won’t ever get over this,” Shiffrin said.