Shiffrin’s Olympics end as they began, with a sudden fall and a frank review
By Matthew Futterman
For Mikaela Shiffrin, the most unexpected of Olympic journeys culminated just as it began: with one more crash, one more disqualification, one more frank assessment of a race she had lost instead of one she had won.
“Right now,” said Shiffrin, one of the most decorated skiers in history, “I just feel like a joke.”
Her comment, tinged with the emotional honesty that has marked so many of her self reviews over the past two weeks, came after yet another mangled run, this time in the Alpine combined, that ended with Shiffrin sliding out of a course on her hip.
Shiffrin arrived in Beijing favored to win multiple medals in a career that already had produced two golds and a silver, the next step in her quest to become the most decorated skier ever to compete on the international stage. Instead, her journey became a superstar’s staredown with an abyss: two DNFs (did not finish) in giant slalom and slalom, followed by ninth- and 18th-place finishes in super-G and downhill, and then one last DNF in combined Thursday in Yanqing.
“I know there is going to be a whole chaotic mess of crap that people are saying, about how I just fantastically failed the past couple weeks in the moment that actually counted,” Shiffrin said, standing in a steady snowfall for nearly an hour, only 50 yards from a medals stand onto which she never ascended. “It’s really strange, but I am not even afraid of that right now. Maybe that is because I have zero emotional energy to give anymore.”
Shiffrin said she planned to ski in a mixed team event Saturday, though that event, taking place for only the second time, is more a celebration of skiing than an intense individual battle for medals. That will complete her Beijing Olympics journey. But on Thursday, she was already reflecting on how it had gone so wrong.
Perhaps it started just as she arrived in China, and had her first training sessions at Yanqing National Alpine Center, a course she and the rest of the field had never seen. Rather than projecting the surety and confidence of a two-time gold medalist and six-time world champion, Shiffrin expressed discomfort with the manufactured snow and wondered aloud if the random wind gusts on the mountain might add an unwelcome measure of uncertainty to the results.
Or maybe it began weeks earlier, with a case of COVID-19 and 10 days of isolation — and no racing or training — over the holidays, in the middle of the World Cup season. Or perhaps even in November, when a sore back cost her valuable practice, or even two years ago, when her father, Jeff, died suddenly from an accident at the family home in Colorado.
Shiffrin did not compete for nine months after his death, and in one particularly raw moment in Beijing she lamented that she wished she had just been able to call him, to talk through her mistakes and her frustrations.
Whenever it started, it still would have been impossible to foresee what transpired once Shiffrin rose for her first race around 4:30 a.m. Feb. 7. She warmed up, ate breakfast, and headed up the mountain for an inspection of the course just after sunrise.
A few hours later came that first flub, a shaky left turn in the giant slalom and a slide onto her hip. Two days later in the slalom, her best event, she skied out after only five gates.
After the initial fall, she spoke about going into a race knowing that it was going to take an intense push from the start to prevail, and then pushing a little too hard, wanting something too much. There were deep breaths but a refusal to complain. “Wasted energy,” she called it.
Then came the second failure, and 20 minutes of cold isolation on the snow beside the course, her head lifting from her knees occasionally to watch a competitor speed past. When she finally came down, she did not bother fighting back her tears. “Things happen so fast,” she said, her voice shaking.
She tried to reset once more, but said she was starting to doubt her instincts on and off the hill. After her ninth-place finish in the super G two days later, Shiffrin shared a recurring dream she had been having, of seeing herself skiing out on the fifth gate over and over.
She talked of an “enormous letdown” of her failures, but also of the relief that had come with the simple accomplishment of crossing the finish line. “That is really nice for my heart,” she said.
But before the downhill, Shiffrin acknowledged the danger inherent in that kind of safeties-off race, and when she finished 18th she said she knew why. In the moments when she felt the speed rising, she admitted, she could not let go, stop thinking, ski freely. “A gift and a curse,” she said of her overactive mind.
Thursday’s combined event — one run of downhill followed by one run of slalom — offered an opportunity to show off her versatility.
She attacked the downhill, her line so aggressive that she knocked into two gates on the steep top portion of the course, and cruised across the line in fifth place, perfectly positioned a little more than a half-second behind the leader. With the speed run over and her preferred slalom looming in the early afternoon, she addressed the elephant on the mountain.
“I have to overcome the image that I am going to ski out on the fifth gate,” she said.
As it turned out, the first five gates were fine, even fun, she would say later. But four gates after that her balance started to go as she made a tight turn. In an instant, Shiffrin’s knees were in the snow. She spent several minutes sitting beside the course again before skiing down, stopping just before the finish to tend to Nicol Delago of Italy, who had crashed and slid for 100 yards in the snow. Then she put on a jacket and watched her teammates ski.
She had felt the pressure, she admitted when she finally spoke with reporters, but also a calm, the sense that she could ski a clean slalom run, as she had done thousands of times before. And then somehow she couldn’t. She had prepared, she said, and still the turns were not there.
As she spoke, the medals were awarded behind her: Michelle Gisin of Switzerland clinched a second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event, beating her teammate Wendy Holdener by more than a second and Federica Brignone of Italy by nearly two.
Shiffrin’s search for a medal of her own, for understanding, will go on. Saturday brings one final race, one last chance to salvage a Games she may want to forget.
“I have literally no idea why we keep coming back and doing it,” Shiffrin said, “especially after today.”