Pyeongchang, South Korea • Mikaela Shiffrin makes it all looks so easy sometimes. For the world’s most dominant female ski racer, the trip from the starting gate to the medals podium is a well-trodden path.
Friday morning offered a stern reminder for Shiffrin and the world how difficult this medal pursuit could be, how difficult it will be to leave Pyeongchang with a suitcase full of gold. Less than 24 hours after winning the Olympic title in the giant slalom, Shiffrin was back on the course at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre to defend her Olympic gold in the slalom.
But things don’t always go as planned, and in her most dominant and consistent discipline, Shiffrin finished Friday’s slalom in a disappointing fourth place, endangering her hopes of leaving here with multiple medals. Shiffrin’s total time of 1:39.03 was 0.40 seconds behind first-place finisher Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter and 0.08 seconds from a spot on the podium.
She seemed to know from the start of the day that something was amiss. Before her first run, Shiffrin stood at the top of the course and vomited before launching down the hill. She chuckled as she told NBC that “it almost felt like a virus kind of puking, less about nerves, I mean, but we’ll see.”
Shiffrin has been open about her competitive anxieties and her ongoing battle with nerves. Last season she sought the help of Lauren Loberg, a sports psychologist who works with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “I get so nervous; I was throwing up last year,” Shiffrin told The Washington Post before the Olympics. “It’s like, the races I’m supposed to win, I worry about what happens if I don’t. Who am I letting down? My family? The media? What’s the media going to say if I don’t win?”
In her best discipline and with an empty stomach, she wasn’t her usual dominant self Friday morning and clocked a time of 49.37 seconds, the fourth-best of the day’s initial runs. Entering the second run, she trailed Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener by 0.48 seconds, not an insurmountable margin by any means, but also not her preferred position.
“I’m not super-psyched with it,” Shiffrin said of her first run. “I was quite conservative. I guess I got the through the finish. I’m not super far off. I can be a lot cleaner for the second run, so that’s my goal.”
She had about four hours before her second run, enough time to nap, regroup and calm her nerves. Coming from behind is not a familiar position for Shiffrin, in large part because she doesn’t usually need to; she’s typically so dominant in the first run. This season she’s raced seven World Cup slalom races. She led after the first run in six, eventually winning five and finishing second in another. The only slalom she didn’t lead this season was Jan. 9 in Flachau, Austria, where she was second, trailing only Austria’s Bernadette Schild by .37 seconds. She scorched through her second run and won the race over Schild by nearly a full second.
There would be no such magic Friday afternoon. She posted a time of 49.66 seconds in her second run — 0.39 seconds slower than her first. She was the fourth-to-last competitor and could only watch as two of the final three races posted faster total times, bumping her from a spot on the podium.
A tough day of racing and the surprising results showed how daunting this task is while also revealing the logistical challenges at play. Shiffrin came to Pyeongchang contemplating as many as five races. But weather wiped out two days of competition, forcing Olympic officials to shuffle and condense the alpine schedule. For Shiffrin, it meant races wouldn’t be spaced out as much, and she wouldn’t have as much time to rest and prepare for the speed events.
Her team decided to pull out of Saturday’s Super G race and spend the extra time preparing for the downhill, which is scheduled for Wednesday. But racing the giant slalom and slalom on back-to-back days is also no easy task.
One day earlier, she collected her first gold medal of these Olympics. But rather than rest and focus on the next day’s race, Shiffrin had to attend an awards ceremony Thursday night at the Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza, where she actually received her medal.
That didn’t start until after 8 p.m. Shiffrin has been trying to go to bed by 8:30 each night, but the night before Friday’s slalom she wasn’t in bed until 10.
“It was certainly not normal preparations, but I also knew that going into these Olympics,” she said. “It’s not normal races. It’s not normal preparation for races. I have to be prepared for anything.”
There will no medal ceremony to worry about on Friday night, and Shiffrin now has some time to rest before she resumes her hunt for a second Pyeongchang medal.
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