KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- It was snowing at the top of the women’s giant slalom course, raining at the bottom and foggy in the middle.
Sounds like terrible conditions to make your Olympic debut, right?
“It was a pretty spectacular day, actually,” said 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin. “I mean it’s not sunny, but on the other hand, who gets to race their first Olympics in rain this bad when there’s still snow on the ground, right?"
She then turned her sunny disposition on her fifth-place finish at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“Well, I wanted a gold,” Shiffrin said. “But I think this was meant to happen and it’s something I’m going to learn from.
“And the next Olympics I go to I’m sure as heck not getting fifth."
She’s not finished with these Winter Games yet. Shiffrin’s top-five finish bodes well for her next race, Friday’s slalom, in which she is the favorite.
After all, Shiffrin leads the world cup slalom standings. Last year, she won the world championship and the world cup title in the event at age 17. Lindsey Vonn was 20 when she posted her first world cup victory.
“If she pops a top-10 in the GS, she’s coming in the slalom,” Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street said before the race, “because she will have gotten those Olympic jitters out of her system and she’ll be like, ‘OK, now I’m where I’m comfortable. Now I can race the event that I feel the best at here with this much pressure.’"
Shiffrin has never won a world cup title in the giant slalom, but thought she could make a breakthrough at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
She was in fifth place after the rainy first run, 0.91 seconds behind leader Tina Maze of Slovenia. Shiffrin made up ground on her second run to finish with a combined time of 2:37.37. She was only 0.5 behind Maze, who won her second gold medal of the Sochi Games, and 0.23 out of third place.
Anna Fenninger of Austria, skiing with her super-G gold medal in her pocket, won the silver and defending champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany took the bronze.
“I knew I was going to be nervous and I was,” Shiffrin said. “When I was in the gate, I pushed the nerves aside and I just tried to race as well as I can. It boiled down to losing a couple of tenths on a couple of gates that I didn’t ski as cleanly as the other girls."
Resi Stiegler finished 29th with a combined time of 2:44.07 and Megan McJames was 30th at 2:44.37.
“On a day like today, the run’s not going to be pretty,” McJames said. “It’s just who can throw it down the hill the best."
Julia Mancuso, who won the bronze medal in the super combined last week, failed to finish her first run.
“I just caught a really soft spot and it twisted me,” said Mancuso. “That’s the only bummer when the snow’s like this. You really have to be precise. You can’t get out of body position; otherwise it gets the best of you."
Shiffrin said visibility was better than she expected and conditions were good in light of so much precipitation.
“I think it was a pretty fair race and I’m just really in awe of the top three girls — and also the fourth girl because she was ahead of me, too,” Shiffrin said.
She’s convinced that victory will come when the time is right. “I believe that I wasn’t going to win my first world cup slalom race until I was ready, because if I won it a minute sooner, then I wouldn’t be able to continue to win,” Shiffrin said. “And I think it’s the same for GS. I was really thinking that my first GS win would be at the Olympics and that would be such a cool thing to accomplish. But it’s just something that I accept."
She said she’ll analyze the medalists’ skiing and her own and try to win the next one.
“I try to learn from everybody I see, so I don’t think I lack too much experience,” she said.
Street said Shiffrin has “a great head on her shoulders."
“Mikaela is very, very tactical and very methodical about the way she approaches the sport — and it’s fantastic,” said Street, who won the Olympic super-G in 1998 and was second in the downhill in 1994.
“She told me that she would rather train all season long, race three races, win all three of them than race a full season and bop around,” placing in the top 15.
“There’s a hunger and a discipline with that that is rare at that age. And it’s going to carry her a long, long way.”