PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Mikaela Shiffrin crossed the finish line after the second run of women’s giant slalom and collapsed to the snow, her head in her hands.
Those watching thought that she must be relieved. Under enormous pressure to win medals here at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Shiffrin had just laid down a scorcher of a second run.
Instead, she was overjoyed that she had skied her best.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Shiffrin said. “My best effort is good enough. It was good enough today, and I have an Olympic gold in giant slalom. It was my 15 seconds to let it all out.”
She had come to PyeongChang wanting to win Olympic medals. And not just in slalom, the discipline that the 22-year-old has dominated for half a decade.
“I care, I want to medal, I want to medal in multiple disciplines,” she stated in a pre-Olympic press conference last week.
It was statement of fact, not braggadocio. Shiffrin came to PyeongChang as the overall world cup leader, and the No. 1-ranked slalom skier as well. In giant slalom, she had finished on the world cup podium in four of seven races so far this season. Proof of her growing breadth as a ski racer, she also had three podium finishes in downhill before the Olympic Games.
On a sun-splashed day with nary a breeze at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, Shiffrin delivered after three days of delays.
“I think it’s huge,” said her coach Mike Day, about the importance of winning her first event. “I think it’s amazing, and it really sets a great tone for us for the next 10 days.”
Shiffrin’s two-run time of 2:20.02 put her almost a half-second ahead of Ragnhild Mowinkel from Norway (2:20.41), who won the silver medal. Federica Brignone from Italy rounded out the podium with a time of 2:20.48.
It’s Shiffrin’s second Olympic gold medal. She is the defending gold medalist in slalom from the 2014 Sochi Games. She finished fifth in giant slalom at those Games.
When the sun rose over the Korean mountains on Thursday morning, it became clear that the long-awaited alpine events would finally start (only men’s alpine combined had run so far while three other events had been delayed due to weather).
Asked if it felt good to finally ski, Shiffrin laughed in relief after her first of two runs: “Yeah! You don’t even know! Oh my gosh, last night I was like, are we ever going to race?”
It was tough to mentally tide herself over until race day, she said. Especially because the schedule kept flip-flopping. First giant slalom was canceled, then slalom, with the giant slalom rescheduled before the slalom.
“If we had stuck with GS the whole time, it would have been a little easier to deal with because we still would have been focused into this event,” explained Day. “But we switched gears to slalom as well.”
But with the weather finally sunny and calm, Shiffrin was happy that conditions were fair for everyone, without gusting winds hampering some athletes and helping others.
And she seemed relaxed.
“The conditions are great, the weather is beautiful, and it’s a pleasure to be racing today,” she shared with reporters after the first run, as if she had stopped for lunch with friends during a bluebird day of recreational skiing at Vail, her home mountain.
First run — a turny course set by the Italian coach that threw many skiers off on the steep final pitch — Shiffrin skied loose and pushed hard on the top, a false flat. As she came onto the final steep pitch, she hugged a closer line than most of her competitors, shooting out wide on only one gate as the pitch transitioned to a flatter finish.
The “micro terrain” on the course — the small bumps, knolls, and chattery sections — were the key to the course, she said. And it was difficult to see those nuances in the shadowed sections of the slope.
By the end of the first run, Shiffrin sat in silver-medal position. She was in an Italian sandwich, 0.20 seconds behind Manuela Moelgg and 0.09 seconds ahead of Brignone.
“I think everyone had some first-run jitters,” Shiffrin said. “So what you saw there from anybody, it wasn’t really a good depiction of what we can all do.”
She knew that she could be cleaner and more aggressive. She predicted that second run would be “like a new race.”
Her mom, Eileen, who serves as one of her coaches, told her, “You can do this so don’t back off.”
In the afternoon run, she listened to her mom.
“I was watching all these girls go down in the second run and attacking,” Shiffrin said. “Everyone wants gold. Everybody is skiing to win. It kind of left me no choice but to do the same thing. I’m really happy with how that worked.”
Shiffrin is a skier who revels more in skiing her best than she does in winning trophies. While other skiers throw their skis into some of the turns in giant slalom, particularly as it gets steep, Shiffrin leans more forward, as if driving a Formula I car, and carves around almost every gate, using her skis to propel her into the next turn — an artist using her tools to their full potential.
“It’s an incredible feeling to know my best effort is good enough,” she said.
Only at the bottom of her second run did she have to throw her skis sideways to make it around a gate or two. And not because she was out of control. She had simply been too aggressive, she said.
Shiffrin crossed the finish line and did what she always does when she realizes that she has skied her best — she raised her hands to her helmet, as if surprised. Then she fell to the snow.
After getting up and wiping away tears, Shiffrin made the media rounds.
“I told you guys, I’d go for gold,” she teased, “so I went for it.”
Shiffrin’s giant slalom gold is Team USA’s 101st Olympic gold medal and also the 101st medal won by U.S. Ski & Snowboard since the Olympic Winter Games debuted in 1924.
Now she turns her attention to defending her Olympic gold medal in slalom tomorrow. Should she win again, she will be the first American alpine skier to win two Olympic gold medals at the same Games since Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952.
“Every single day is a new day and my only job here is to put out my best effort,” Shiffrin said. “But coming into these Olympics, I thought, yeah, I could come away with multiple medals. I could also walk away with nothing. Now I know that I have something. So that’s a really nice feeling.”
Shiffrin will likely skip the super-G on Saturday and save her energy for the downhill and combined races later next week.
Also competing for Team USA in the women’s giant slalom, Megan McJames finished 31st, Resi Stiegler 36th, and Tricia Mangan did not finish her first run.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.