PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When Andrea Mead Lawrence won her two gold medals at the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Norway, she had six days between the giant slalom and slalom.
Mikaela Shiffrin had less than 24 hours to match Mead Lawrence’s feat.
After skiing a conservative first run and a cleaner second run, Shiffrin just wasn’t fast enough. She not only missed out on winning her second gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she missed winning a medal entirely, finishing just off the podium in fourth – by 0.08 seconds.
“Today I didn’t feel like I was up for the challenge,” said Shiffrin, referring to her own very high expectations. “Actually I did. But when I was skiing my runs, that didn’t come out, and that’s a very big disappointment.”
Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter won with a two-run time of 1:38.63, while Wendy Holdener of Switzerland took silver in 1:38.68 and Austria’s Katharina Gallhuber the bronze in 1:38.95.
Shiffrin finished in 1:39.03.
The fourth-place finish was a surprise for the 22-year-old who at 18 won gold at the 2014 Olympics, becoming the youngest ever Olympic slalom champion. She has also won the past three slalom world titles.
No one – male or female – has ever successfully defended an Olympic slalom title, a stat that will continue to stand for now.
The slalom did not start out well for Shiffrin. As she prepared for her first run, she vomited violently, telling NBC’s Steve Porino that it felt more like a stomach virus than nerves.
Then she was not “super psyched” with her first run. She skied conservatively, uncharacteristically hanging on her edges on the slalom course’s steep top section.
“Yeah, I mean, I guess I got through the finish, I’m not super far off,” she said, looking pale and not quite herself.
But 0.48 seconds was a surmountable deficit. She had rebounded from even bigger time-gaps in slalom, the discipline that she has dominated since the 2012-2013 season.
In March 2013, just three days after she turned 18, she overcame a 1.17-second deficit at the World Cup Finals to win her first world cup slalom title.
At the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, Shiffrin promised, “I can be a lot cleaner for the second run, so that’s my goal.”
Her team tried to help her between runs, with her mom — who serves as her coach — saying, “You’ve got to help us out or we can’t help you.”
“I didn’t know what to say,” said Shiffrin. “I almost felt like it was a virus, but now I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. It was just nerves.”
Then second run, Gallhuber did “a Shiffrin.” In ninth after the first run and 1.23 seconds out of first, the Austrian laid down the fastest second run.
As she sat in the winner’s seat, Gallhuber expected established slalom stars like Shiffrin to displace her and was shocked when Shiffrin came across the line 0.08 seconds slower.
“I’m really surprised because she is the best slalom skier of this season,” said Gallhuber. “She’s behind me, I can’t believe it.”
Gallhuber is 20 years old and has never finished on the world cup podium. She has a string of top-seven slalom finishes this season though.
When it was Shiffrin’s turn, she skied a cleaner run but couldn’t muster the fire that has made her the world’s best slalom skier.
She thought that she had her nerves under control. She had dealt with anxiety all of last season, working with a sports psychologist to help handle performance anxiety before races.
“I’ve dealt with this before, I’m fine,” she told herself. “But when I ended up skiing the course, I skied it really, really conservative. And that’s not something that deserves to win a medal.”
Shiffrin is a racer who, like Bode Miller used to say, aims more to ski her best — to arc every turn, to use her skis to their potential, to hold the perfect line — than to collect trophies. So she was more disappointed in how she felt on her skis today than she was about finishing fourth and missing out on winning her third Olympic medal.
“I know that … this is going to sound so arrogant … I know that I’m the best slalom skier in the world because I’ve done that [good] skiing so much,” she said. “What I did in the race today was not even anywhere close to that, even anywhere close to what I was doing with my free skiing.”
Perhaps the enormity of the Olympic Games caught up with Shiffrin. After the race, she reflected on her disappointing first run. Rather than focus on good skiing, she was “almost trying to do something special.”
“I don’t need to do something special,” she realized after the race. “I just need to ski like myself and it would be fine.”
She also admitted that the emotional high of winning the giant slalom gold medal yesterday caught up with her. Normally reserved, she laughed and shimmied on the podium after the post-race presentation yesterday. It was a looser, more expressive Shiffrin than the world often sees.
“It was like I let myself feel too much yesterday,” she said. “It’s like peaks and valley. I had too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today.
“When you have two races in a row, it’s really important to keep that mental energy stable, and I didn’t really do that. So today, it was like all of the tools that I have that make me feel equipped to handle whatever pressure I feel, I didn’t have anymore.”
With the downhill and alpine combined races next week, Shiffrin still could match Mead Lawrence’s feat of winning two Olympic gold medals at the same Games.
But she will have a hard time shaking off the disappointment from this race.
“Every single loss that I’ve ever had, I remember that feeling so thoroughly,” she confessed. “It’s like a piece of my heart breaks off, and I can never get it back. Today is no different than that.”
Also competing for Team USA in the women’s slalom, Megan McJames finished 36th, and Alice Merryweather, who is normally a speed skier, was thrilled to finish two runs in her first Olympic race. She came in 42nd. This spring, Merryweather will enter Dartmouth College for the start of her freshman year.
Resi Stiegler crashed her first run and injured her left knee. She was taken to the hospital for evaluation.
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.