Mikaela Shiffrin overcomes 'terrifying' moment to win slalom gold for USA

Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history at the Sochi Olympics Friday. It was just a first step in what looks likely to be a remarkable career.

Charles Krupa/AP
Women's slalom winner Mikaela Shiffrin (l.) of the USA, greets Austrian fellow medalists Marlies Schild (top) and Kathrin Zettel at the end of her second run at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Friday in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

It is about a half hour after Mikaela Shiffrin has become the youngest slalom champion in Winter Olympics history, and she is still switched on.

At a time when many athletes would be caught in one giant mental exhale, simply allowing the enormity of the moment to wash over them, Shiffrin is “taking in the moment” in a vastly different way. She is observing. She is analyzing. She is learning.

What’s next? she is asked.

“A lot more of you guys, from what I’ve heard,” she responds, nodding to the media.

The words are ordinary, it might seem – a laugh line to soften up the crowd. But the eyes are focused and sharp, and the understanding is keen. You can see the sticky note forming in her mind. “So this is what happens when you win the Olympics. So this is how things change.”

And this is why Shiffrin is the youngest slalom champion in Winter Olympics history. Because to become the best slalom skier in the world by age 18, there is precious little time for wasted moments, and she never wastes any.

She is, quite simply, a 10-year veteran in the body of an 18-year-old – and not in any symbolic sense. She has actually put in more hours on the slope and thought more about her sport than anyone her age and quite a few who are older. For example, she said she was not fazed during the giant slalom earlier this week – her first Olympic race – because she had envisioned and considered thousands of different Olympic scenarios. Whatever Shiffrin does, it is never unprepared.

Such dedication and intellectual acuity are rare enough, even in veterans chastened by experience. In an 18-year-old, they are almost hard to compute. Indeed, after the race, the assembled media fawned over Shiffrin’s accomplishment, trying to goad coach Roland Pfeifer into marveling at the improbability of her ascent. This is the classic Olympic narrative, after all. So much success so young.

Pfeifer didn’t buy it.

“She wants to know everything about skiing, and the way she trains – the volume she trains – she probably is 25 already, so it’s kind of normal that she’s going to ski the way she skis because she’s trained so much, and she really thinks 24-7 about skiing,” he said.

Making the extraordinary ordinary. Isn’t that really what elite athletes do? Well, Shiffrin has figured that out already, along with just about everything else, it sometimes seems.

On Friday, Shiffrin really did take a detour into the extraordinary. Halfway through her second run, holding onto a huge lead, she very nearly blew up. At one point, both her skis were off the ground and she was traveling sideways, not down the hill.

It was, for Shiffrin, a departure into the surreal. “When she is training, she almost never goes out,” said Pfeifer. “She is really focused when she’s skiing … going out is not present in her mind.”

It wasn’t present in her mind Friday, either. Until it was. “That was pretty terrifying,” she said. “There I was, and I was like, ‘I’m just going to go win my first medal,’ and then in the middle of the run, like ‘guess not!’ ”

But this being Mikaela Shiffrin, there was a lesson learned in her databank. She simply needed to download it in the fraction of a second when she was airborne.

Five days before the Olympics began, she had done the exact same thing at a World Cup race in Slovenia. There, she ended up finishing seventh. Yet that seventh might have won her an Olympic gold.  

“No, don’t do that, you do not give up. See this through,” she said of what went through her mind as she was nearly catapulted out of the course.

Then she said the most Mikaela Shiffrin thing of all. That maybe, she learned the trick of saving her gold medal by watching the women’s figure skating the night before.  “It seemed like the difference between the girls who get the win and the ones who don’t is that they just keep their skates moving, so I was trying to take that into today.”

There she was, plopped in front of the television the night before the biggest race of her life, playing Dick Button while watching the figure skating, then turning that into a lesson to make her a better skier. What did Pfeifer say? “She really thinks 24-7 about skiing.”

When she came in at the end of the second run, the scoreboard telling her that her Houdini act had given her a 0.53 second victory, the silver and bronze medalists came out to hug her, as medalists often do. But there was something especially poignant about the moment.

One of the two women was silver medalist Marlies Schild of Austria, a four-time Olympic medalist. Years ago, when Shiffrin was first astounding coaches with her dedication, one asked her what she did in her free time. She said that she would watch videos of Marlies Schild.

When Shiffrin, at age 16, made her first podium in a World Cup event, Schild was there, too, as the winner. Shiffrin famously 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, Shiffrin left no doubt that she is still a big fan, but she was not simply on the podium, she was atop it.

“I always wanted to challenge her, to take it a step up and see if I could do what she does, but better,” Shiffrin said of Schild Friday. “It seems like the first time I do anything, she’s always there and pushing me to do it.”

Later, at the medalist press conference, bronze medalist Kathrin Zettel of Austria was asked how Shiffrin has been able to do what she has done.

Playfully, she turned to Shiffrin next to her. “I don’t know. Mikaela, what are you doing?”

Without missing a beat Shiffrin gave her answer.

“Watching you.”

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