For Mikaela Shiffrin, giant slalom disappointment is fuel for greatness

Rising US alpine skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin finished fifth in the giant slalom at the Sochi Olympics Tuesday. But her best event – and her best years – are ahead.

Luca Bruno/AP
United States' Mikaela Shiffrin passes a gate in the second run of the women's giant slalom at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Tuesday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

At the end of her first Olympic race, Mikaela Shiffrin said something that, for Mikaela Shiffrin, was a bit surprising.

“I was really thinking that my first GS [giant slalom] win would be at the Olympics and that would be such a cool thing to accomplish,” Shiffrin said after the giant slalom at the Sochi Olympics Tuesday.

It is as benign a quote as one could imagine. Who, after all, wouldn’t want a career milestone to happen at the Olympics?

But it is what came next that is the essence of Shiffrin’s genius – how the 18-year-old widely tipped to be better than Lindsey Vonn could ski though a driving rain and at the bottom say it was a “spectacular day.” How, at 17 last year, she became the youngest skier to win the season-long slalom World Cup title in 39 years. How she has become the gold medal favorite in Friday’s slalom.

“[My result] is something I accept,” she said after finishing fifth. “Four girls skied better than I did, and I’m really excited to analyze their skiing and analyze mine.”

If you think she’s kidding when she says “really excited,” then you don’t know Mikaela Shiffrin. When she was younger, she analyzed video of how slalom legend Marlies Schild made her turns in her free time, the same way you imagine Bill Belichick scheming defenses in his bedroom when he was a high schooler. Give Shiffrin a bag of popcorn and the video of Tina Maze’s gold-medal run Tuesday, and she’s all set for a raucous night.

Of course, all the best Olympians – and many of the others, too – are famously dedicated to their craft. For many, the Olympic oath borders on a vestal vow to shave a few seconds of their time, no matter the sacrifice. What separates Shiffrin even from her fellow Olympians, however, is not only her appetite for the work, but the totality of her faith in it.

She accepts that she finished fifth Tuesday not out of any sense of resignation, but because she has no interest in race-day miracles. She wants to win because she deserved it – because she is the best giant slalom skier in the world, and that will come only when she has done the work to be the best giant slalom skier in the world. If she didn’t win, then there’s something she has not yet learned, so there’s no point whining about it. Get the video and get better.

These words – or ones very similar – are probably spoken at least 20 times a day across all the venues of the Sochi Olympics. But then you see Shiffrin’s accomplishments at such a young age, and you see that smile, genuine even after a fifth-place finish, and you wonder if anyone believes those words more – or is more committed to them – than this girl standing in the Russian rain.

“I wanted a gold, but I think this was meant to happen,” she said. “It’s something I’m going to learn from, and next Olympics I go to I’m sure as heck not getting fifth.”

In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell reaches the conclusion that greatness is not greatness at all, it is merely the product of an enormous amount of work – 10,000 hours, he suggests. In Shiffrin, he has a convert determined to put his theory to the test.

When she was a junior racer, she skipped races so she could practice more. When she was 8 and skied at the 300-foot Storrs Hill in Vermont, she made 25 runs a night. And on the way up the lift, she’d watch those coming down – not Marlies Schild, perhaps, but people to learn from all the same.

That’s just the Shiffrin way.

It is telling that when speaking of their roles in the family, Mikaela’s father, anesthesiologist Jeff, has called himself the “systems analyst” and his wife, Eileen, the “application specialist.” This is not your average family.

When Mikaela wanted to know how old you had to be to ski on the World Cup circuit, her father launched into an examination of various facts and data points. When Mikaela wanted to make a traveling soccer team, Eileen taught her how to ride a unicycle around the block (two miles) while juggling because she heard that it increased coordination.

Along the way, there was always a lesson, and it was always the same: There is no point setting a goal unless you are willing to examine what it takes to get there and then to commit yourself to the process.

Revolutionary? Perhaps not.

Hard to carry out in practice? Absolutely.

But this is why Shiffrin can stand at the bottom of the giant slalom Tuesday and be content. If she truly believes an Olympic medal is the result of a process, then the result, in many ways, is out of her hands. Only the process is in them. And if she is committed to the process, then the results will come when she is ready for them.

If it sounds like she should be doing yoga pretzels on the outrun and talking about being one with the mountain, then you haven’t seen the smile.

For Shiffrin, this is brilliant fun.

A former coach has likened her to a Mozart of the snow – a comparison that Shiffrin understandably says is a bit bonkers. Yet there is something in it, and Shiffrin knows it on some level.

"It's my art," Shiffrin told the Denver Post once. "It's like a puzzle or a painting or music. When I ski, it's like a song. I can hear the rhythm in my head, and when I start to ski that rhythm and I start to really link my turns together, all of a sudden there's so much flow and power that I just can't help but feel amazing. That's where the joy comes from."

When Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street watches Shiffrin, that’s what she sees.

"She's so well prepared that she relaxes in the moment, and you can almost see her smiling when she's racing,” she told the Post. “I'm usually nervous when I watch ski racers, for fear that they are going to make a mistake and not pull it off. I'm relaxed and comfortable when I watch her race, and I have a little smile on my face. That's because it's her; it's how she is. It's how she's actually feeling while she's doing it, and that's what I'm experiencing as well.”

That joy was apparent even when talking about Tuesday’s race. When Shiffrin spoke about the runs put down by the medalists Tuesday, there is a childlike envy, as though you can hear the 8-year-old on the chairlift saying, “I want to do that!”

“It was a really cool race to be a part of, especially with the top three girls,” she said. “They really raced well, and it’s cool for me to see.”

Yes, two “cools” in one sentence.

After all, now she’s going to have some excellent video to review tonight.

And perhaps there’s still a little of the 16-year-old who, when she shared her first World Cup podium with hero Schild, blurted out: “Oh my gosh, I'm such a big fan. Well, I'm also on the podium with you. But I'm still a big fan.''

Friday night, she might have the opportunity again to share the podium with the skiers whose craft she so admires. And that would be pretty cool, too.

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