The sentence landed so hard it made you cringe. “Right now,” said U.S. Alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin, “I just feel like a joke.” Eight words, much too harsh, that measure the distance between realistic Olympic expectations and unexplained Olympic reality, and more profoundly the difference between euphoria and misery. Shiffrin was speaking after the last run was finished, at the bottom of a race hill in China, a race hill on which her transcendent skills deserted her at the most inopportune time. She pummeled herself in the cold, and then laughed at the absurdity. She sought answers and found none. She failed, her word, and then vowed to take what comes with failing.
An hour earlier, Shiffrin had sat forlornly in the snow on a Chinese mountainside, rather than skiing gracefully over it. This time, there was less shock than befuddlement, less an urge to analyze or explain or criticize, than to look away. In 11 days and across five races at the Winter Olympics, the disconnect between what Shiffrin has been, and what she did at these Games, grew so large that it sucked reason from the air and replaced it with a paralyzing uncertainty. Rarely has someone so good performed so poorly, and so unexpectedly.
The end came in the slalom portion of the Alpine combined, which followed the morning downhill, in an event where the times from the two portions are added together. Shiffrin, 26, had finished a solid fifth in the downhill, which left her – or some previous version of her – in an ideal position to dominate the slalom and win a medal, possibly gold. At her best, she has a rare combination of technical skill and high-speed efficiency. Instead, Shiffrin’s right ski lost purchase with the snow on the 11th gate, just over 10 seconds into the race; she made a desperate attempt at recovery before falling on her left hip and sliding peacefully off the course, like a little girl on a slippery plastic sled.
For posterity, Shiffrin, the best technical skier in history, made a total of 22 gates and skied just 26 seconds in the giant slalom, slalom and combined slalom, together. She finished both the super-G and downhill, but did not threaten the medal podium in either one, while seemingly using them as confidence-building scrimmages. It is surreal to describe Shiffrin in these terms – she came to the Games with three Olympic medals (two golds), six world championships, and 73 World Cup victories and seemed likely to win a medal in at least two and as many as four individual events. Her performance is astounding.
Shiffrin’s willingness to openly and emotionally examine her work was no less stunning, an athlete seeking answers in real time and sharing her search with the world. Between the combined downhill and slalom, she told NBC’s Todd Lewis, “In theory, [fifth place] is a good place to be. [But] I’m not feeling totally confident with the slalom. I have this recurring image of myself skiing out at the fifth gate again [as in the regular slalom]. I’m not placing any bets, but I’m gonna do my best.” Whether her candor was useful or empowering is a question that won’t be answered any time soon soon.
At the finish, Shiffrin was no less forthcoming with U.S. reporters in the media mixed zone, offering neither explanations nor excuses. It was refreshing, admirable, painful. “I don’t really understand it, and I’m not sure when I’m going to have much of an explanation. I can’t explain to you how frustrated I am to not know what I can learn from this.”
And a few minutes later, this: “I’m certainly questioning a lot. I’m really disappointed, and really frustrated, and I also know that there’s going to be this whole chaotic mess where people are saying how I just fantastically failed for two weeks in the moment that actually counted. And it’s really strange, but I’m not even afraid of that now, and right now maybe that’s because I have zero energy to give right now.”
A brief review: On the night of Feb. 6 (in the U.S.), Shiffrin skied out of the giant slalom on the seventh gate; she was the defending gold medalist in the event. Two days later, she skied out of the slalom on the fifth gate; she has won more World Cup slalom races than any skier in history of either gender, and the 2014 Olympic gold medal at 18. She cried after the slalom at the 2022 Winter Olympics, and said she was inclined to question the last 15 years of her life. She said she wished she could call her father, Jeff, who died in 2020 from injuries suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado.
Then she completed the super-G (ninth place) and the downhill (18th), but seemed to regain some psychological traction. Racing on skis borrowed from downhill silver medalist Sofia Goggia of Italy (both race on Atomic skis), Shiffrin finished a solid fifth in the combined downhill. Had she not struggled so mightily in China, she would have been regarded as a medal lock because of her exceptional slalom record. But this was not that Shiffrin.
“Compared with the slalom race, I was calmer,” said Shiffrin. “Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because I should have been nervous.” She made nine gates. In the NBC booth, Ted Ligety barely spoke the words, “Good skiing there,” when Shiffrin went out. She said she tried to dial back her aggression from the slalom, when she dove nearly straight into the early gates. “The intensity was too high, I didn’t give myself enough room,” she said. “So I had a little different tactic, gave myself more room. But I didn’t want to ski safe. And the feeling I had in those nine gates was great. And then I was off the course.”
Prior to the Olympics, Shiffrin had skied out in slalom three times in four years. “I never ski out,” she said. “Now here, on the same slope, I skied out twice. Can I actually make it down the course? I can. I could do it right now.” Michele Gisin of Switzerland won the gold medal, as she did in 2018 when Shiffrin took the silver. Several skiers – and NBC analyst Steve Porino, said there was a rut in the snow near where Shiffrin lost control. Maybe. But Shiffrin has withstood plenty of ruts.
The question of Olympic pressure is squarely on the table. Shiffrin pushed back. “There were certainly points during the Games where I felt the weight of pressure,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t something I’ve never felt before. Some days I feel more uptight, and still ski well.” And that’s true: She has three Olympic medals, and has performed with cold precision around the world in non-Olympic settings. There’s no straight line here. Bode Miller is the best U.S. male skier in history and he flamed out with no medals in 2006 in Torino (Sestriere), only to win three medals in Vancouver four years later.
It has been a trying two years for Shiffrin since losing her father. Tightening the focus, she missed 10 days of training in December, in COVID-19 quarantine. “I’ve never in my career taken 10 days off,” she said. Her physical therapist was in quarantine when Shiffrin first arrived in China. But Shiffrin only mentioned these things when prompted. And she also said, “In sports you can have preparation and still fall short.” She deserves empathy for struggling in such a public way, and credit for facing questions. Yet it is a reality that her chosen vocation keeps score.
The effect on Shiffrin’s career is impossible to know. For now, she plans to ski the team parallel giant slalom event on Friday night in the U.S. “[Thursday] I’m going to train parallel giant slalom,” she said, “Because I’m that much of an idiot.” She laughed at that. The World Cup resumes shortly, and Shiffrin will be racing. The Olympics take place in four years, and again four years after that. Shiffrin will return to that stage, and win medals, or she will not. Her long-term legacy is secure and deserved. And still, there is plenty of time to make 2022 an Olympic footnote. There is also no guarantee that it will happen.
And none of this is a joke.