The Olympic Games open their arms and welcome our storylines. They give them uniforms, rooms in the Olympic Village, and a place to march in the Opening Ceremony. A platform from which to live, to breathe, to soar. And then sometimes, the Olympics take those storylines and grind them into dust. Because for all their ethereal wonder, the Olympics are a sporting event, with scoreboards and clocks and the unmerciful reality of victory and defeat, unmoored from predetermined narratives. The Games endear, but the games also keep score. The storyline can change in as little as 11 seconds.
So it was that 26-year-old alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States came to these Olympics, to the mountains north of Beijing, with their ribbons of man-made snow laid over brown crags, with a story to tell, and to continue telling. She had been an 18-year-old wunderkind eight years ago in Sochi when she won a gold medal in the slalom. She had been the best active women’s ski racer on earth four years ago in PyeongChang, so good that a gold medal in the giant slalom and a silver in the combined event seemed insufficient, because she did not medal in her best event, the slalom, and did not contest the downhill and Super-G. We thought she could do more. We wanted more.
Just less than two years later she lost her father, Jeff, who died on Feb. 2, at 65 from injuries suffered in a accident at the family’s home in Colorado, adding impossibly painful scar tissue. "It’s not hard to remember what happened two years ago," she said before the Games began. "I’ve already had some challenging moments here [in China]." But she endured, as she has, and she has often been as good as ever. There was more story now, and in Beijing she would again consider contesting five events.
Today I skied a turn a bit wrong and I paid the hardest consequences for it.
And so it also was that Monday morning in China, Sunday evening in the United States, Shiffrin fell to her left hip navigating the seventh of 47 gates in the first run of the giant slalom, the event she won in Korea four years ago, the first of these Games. She was out of the event in barely 11 seconds. It was one of those moments in sports that is so shocking it seems to make your heart stop: Shiffrin does not fall. She has started 229 World Cup, World Championship and Olympic races in eight years and failed to finish only 16 of them; her last DNF in giant slalom was nearly four years ago in Kronplatz, Italy.
"Any time you go on your side like that," Shriffin said to reporters at the base of the mountain in China, after her truncated run, "It’s just mis-timing where you’re pressuring, and how you’re pressuring [the edges of the ski]. I was pushing. It’s hard to know how it would have gone the rest of the run. It’s like, it was finished basically before it started.
"I rarely go out in GS," said Shiffrin, speaking truth. "I spend a lot of time in my training working on technique and tactics to limit skiing out or crashing, then I do it at the Olympics, yeah." And then, humor: "It wasn’t even a big crash. Not very exciting."
It’s tempting to immediately resurface the narrative of Shiffrin’s struggles with the rigid and pressurized format of the Olympic Games. Four years ago, she won the giant slalom, a mild surprise, but then admitted to fighting the uncertainty of weather postponements that threw her out of her routine. She has at least two (slalom and combined) and possibly four more races (with Super-G and downhill). She said Sunday night that would not let her GS fall stick and affect what lies ahead.
The two-run slalom comes Tuesday night in the U.S. (Wednesday morning in China), where Shiffrin has won four World Cup season titles, and is no less than a co-favorite with Petra Vlhova of Slovakia. Two days later, Shiffrin could be a genuine threat in the Super-G, followed in Week 2 by a possible start on the downhill and on Feb. 16 in the combined downhill-slalom, where Shiffrin is the defending silver medalist and a solid medal favorite here. There is much ski racing left for her.
"It’s hard not to dwell," Shiffrin told NBC’s Todd Lewis. "I’m always kind of dwelling on this kind of heartbreaking days. "But I just cannot afford to spend or waste energy on something that’s now in the past."
Minutes later, Shiffrin told mixed zone media, "I’m not going to cry about this, because that’s just wasted energy. My best chance for the next races is to move forward and re-focus. I feel like I’m in a good place to do that. I don’t know about the medals. I know my skiing is good. My goal is to keep the right mentality to keep pushing."
She was pushing in Sunday night’s race. Shiffrin always pushes, in ways that many racers cannot, and never have, but with a hard-earned technical precision – first taught to Mikaela and her brother, Taylor, by their late father – that also reduces risk. Shiffrin pushed out No. 7 from the start house, an advantageous number. It was quickly apparent that the man-made snow on the course – these mountains receive very little natural snowfall annually – was fast and perilous. "This surface is incredible," said Shiffrin. "There’s nothing tricky about it. It’s beautiful. But it’s not forgiving."
She attacked from the start, as ever, clean and fast through six gates. Gate No. 7 was a right-footer, turning left, and the edge of Shiffrin’s right ski lost purchase with the snow, drifting away from her body. Shiffrin’s left hip went to the snow for a beat, then two, then three, an unsustainable body position. She slid across the hill and missed Gate No. 8, a fundamental disqualification. "I was pushing," she said. "So I’m really happy with that. But, five gates [sic] into the course, yeah, that stinks."
She added later, "I was just a little bit, trying to push it, almost anxious. These are amazing conditions, but you don’t have room for small errors or anything like that."
In the aftermath, Shiffrin fairly recounted what has not been an easy or routine season for her, or any World Cup racers, largely because of the ongoing pandemic, but not just because of that. Shiffrin was sharp and won the season-opening giant slalom on a glacier above Soelden, Austria, in October, but suffered a back injury after that. "Stuck in a bed because of back injury," she said. Then she got COVID in December. "Ten days that I had to take off from training in quarantine." Long-lasting Olympic records will, of course, reflect none of this. Just three letters: DNF. And no medal.
She was asked a boilerplate question about getting over the disappointment. She casually listed a handful or DNFs, going back several years. "I still remember how much [those] hurt," she said. "I won’t ever get over this, either. But I have to put the plug in feeling any emotions or dwelling on it. It takes too much energy. It’s really important to re-focus. Today I skied a turn a bit wrong and I paid the hardest consequences for it."
But again, a look to the very near future, and more races, more opportunities. "There’s a lot to come in the next week." A lot of storyline, still alive, ever richer.