The first question asked to Mikaela Shiffrin when she met reporters after her second quick exit from an alpine ski race at the Beijing Games was short, simple and straightforward: What happened?
The complicated, well-thought-out answers that followed involved a small analysis of her actual performance on skis – which lasted a full five seconds before things went awry in Wednesday’s first run of the two-leg slalom, about half as long as American held the course in Monday’s first run of giant slalom with two legs – and in the end she boiled down to this: Shiffrin herself was not really sure what brought her to this point or where she is going from here.
“I’ve never been in this position before,” said the two-time Olympic gold medalist with tears dampening her cheeks, “and I do not know how to deal with it.”
What the shaken Shiffrin was sure of: “It feels like a really big disappointment.”
The 26-year-old from Colorado, who won slalom at the Sochi Games in 2014 and giant slalom at the Pyeonchgang Games in 2018, was the seventh skier from the starting hut on Wednesday on a course set by her coach, Mike Day.
She began to lose her balance and staggered out of control for just four seconds and four gates in, swung too far as she swerved to the right. The neon yellow handle on her right ski pole scratched along the snow as she ended up far outside the fifth gate.
Mikaela Shiffrin from the USA goes out in the first run of the women’s slalom at the 2022 Winter Olympics, on February 9, 2022.
Shiffrin went over to the side of the track, clicked out of her skis and sat down on the ground, shook her head and then let it rest on her arms on top of her bent knees. It will be the lasting image of this day – back in the US, NBC’s coverage lingered on that image of Shiffrin and drew anger on social media from some viewers – and perhaps of these Olympics for someone who arrived in China as one of the biggest stars in all winter sports.
“GS and slalom, that was my biggest focus,” she said. “So it really feels like a lot of work for nothing.”
Other drivers said the top was not particularly slippery or difficult. In fact, the reigning world champion in slalom, Katharina Liensberger from Austria – who took the silver behind Wednesday’s gold medalist Petra Vlhova from Slovakia – called it “a really easy course.”
Vlhova, Shiffrin’s best World Cup rival this season, shot from eighth place after the start to the victory with a total time of 1 minute, 44.98 seconds. She won Slovakia’s first ever Olympic alpine medal.
Almost Shiffrin came to give an explanation for what went wrong, she said she tried to attack too much.
“I was pushing,” she said, “and maybe it was over my limit.”
Shiffrin arrived at the Yanqing Alpine Skiing Center with plans to take part in all five individual races, and another gold would make her the only other woman to win at least one from Alpine at three Olympics in a row.
So far, however, Shiffrin is 0 for 2.
It’s not amazing that she has not won a medal, let alone a gold this week. As Shiffrin so often reminds everyone, anything can happen any day. What’s really surprising is that she’s been so shut down, so immediately, on each of her two rides along the course called Ice River.
Mikaela Shiffrin from the USA loses control and skis off course during the first run of the women’s giant slalom at the Winter Olympics 2022, 7 February 2022.
‘It’s really boring. It is never fun to go out, said the Swedish skier Anna Swenn Larsson, 11th in the first run. ‘I know how it feels.’
Shiffrin’s next opportunity to compete may come on Friday in the super-G, although she made it sound as if she could consider skipping it and said: ‘It would be a pleasure to ski. But I also have some teammates who are really fast, and we have the athletes who can fill the spaces. So if I’m going to ski out at the fifth gate, like, what’s the point?
She has never competed in a super-G at an Olympics but won it at the 2019 World Championships.
What is also remarkable about all this is that Shiffrin is known for being such a consistent sound on the slopes, as a metronome who never misses a beat. She may be slower than other athletes one day, sure – no one is perfect – but what she so rarely does is throw a maneuver in such a way that she does not even go all the way down the hill. “Did Not Finish” on Monday was her first in giant slalom since January 23, 2018.
Her 47 career wins in the World Cup in slalom are more than anyone else has won in any single competition.
My whole career has taught me to trust my skiing if it’s good skiing and that’s all I have to trust. … Of course the pressure is high, but it did not feel like the biggest problem today, she said. “So it’s not the end of the world, and it’s so stupid to care so much, but I feel I have to question a lot now.”
Shiffrin has shared a lot about her innermost thoughts in recent months, via social media and traditional media. She discussed how she felt empathy when athletes at the Olympics in Tokyo such as gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Caeleb Dressel shared their feelings about pressure and expectations.
And Shiffrin has been open with the difficult task of continuing after her father, Jeff’s accidental death in February 2020.
“Right now I would really like to call him, so that does not make it any easier,” Shiffrin said on Monday, pausing between words, her voice shaking.
Then she continued with a laugh: ‘And he would probably tell me to just get over it. But he’s not here to say that. So on top of everything else, I’m pretty mad at him too. ‘