Like many great champions, Mikaela Shiffrin is compelling, and human, in defeat
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea - Mikaela Shiffrin, paragon of success, is a mysterious treasure, a wondrous skier who exists for us to marvel but not understand. At her best, she's superhuman. She's inexplicable. She does compelling things, but she's not always a compelling character because she's too perfect.
So as jarring was it was to see another side - a losing side - of Shiffrin at Yongpyong Alpine Centre on Friday, it was oddly riveting. She was vulnerable. She was confused. She was 22. Mikaela Shiffrin, temporary also-ran, opened the gates to her complex and maturing mind after a disappointing fourth-place Olympic finish in the slalom, her best event.
She had just experienced the wildest 24 hours a headlining Olympian can have. Thursday: gold medal, giant slalom. Friday: no medal, slalom. For the other 99.999 percent of athletes, that would amount to a busy but joyous 24 hours. For Shiffrin, a precocious young champion who just might redefine alpine skiing excellence, it was a period of mixed emotions that ended with her pondering how to recover.
"I'm terrible at that," Shiffrin said when asked about moving on. "No, every single loss that I've ever had, I remember that feeling so thoroughly. It's like a piece of my heart breaks off, and I can never get it back.
"Today is no different than that. Someday, I'll be able to understand that it's a part of life, and I'm just learning, and I'm 22 years old. Right now, I feel like - argh! - but it is what it is."
More than words, Shiffrin's expressions emphasized her frustration. She shrugged in disappointment after second run. After the medalists were decided - Sweden's Frida Hansdotter took gold, Switzerland's Wendy Holdener silver and Austria's Katharina Gallhuber bronze - Shiffrin hugged Holdener and shrugged again. During interviews, she shook her head, cocked it to the side, closed her eyes, flashed awkward smiles and laughed at her pain. She didn't know how to act, and she didn't know what to think. Her body was as uncomfortable with losing as her mind.
Yet Shiffrin would not stop trying to process this strange setback. As she talked it out, she became human. As she became human, she turned interesting. And flawed. And weird. She was a mess of exasperation and introspection. She spoke openly about being nervous and vomiting before her first run. She was genuinely raw. It inspired more intrigue than concern.
See, here's the thing: Shiffrin is going to be fine. There's a chance she could win another medal or two at these Olympics, in the downhill and the combined. Even if she doesn't, she's bringing home that giant slalom gold to go with the slalom gold she won as an 18-year-old in Sochi four years ago. The dream was that she would achieve an historic medal haul here, but there's value in lessons learned from coming up short. She's still a celebrated figure. She'll turn 23 next month, and she'll keep growing.
Her personal story gets to evolve now, too. Mikaela Shiffrin, paragon of success, must learn to manage the expectations better. She admits to feeling pressure. The vomiting isn't something new; it's a recurring issue. Through maturity and mental training, she must learn to suppress outside influences and her own desire to live up to the hype.
"I kind of beat myself in the wrong way today," Shiffrin admitted. "And definitely in that first run I did. Rather than just focusing on the good skiing that I know that I can do, I was conservative. I was almost trying to do something special, and I don't need to do something special. I just need to ski like myself, and it would be fine."
She went deeper: "I think it's more my own expectations and the magnitude of what I'm trying to do, for sure. But less about what everybody else wants to see. It's more, when I get into the start gate, how I feel about what I'm trying to accomplish. And today I didn't feel like I was - I don't know - up for the challenge. Actually, I did, but when I was actually skiing, my runs, that didn't come out. And that's a very big disappointment."
Shiffrin exists in an isolated place. Few athletes, in any sport, have ever accomplished as much by age 22. Her 41 World Cup victories is a mind-boggling number. Her two gold medals show she's not afraid of this stage. But no one can have it all. If Shiffrin had reached the realistic goal of three golds in PyeongChang, where would such a perfect story go from there?
The current conflict makes Shiffrin much more fascinating. Winners aren't defined by unobstructed winning. There needs to be challenges, needs to be struggle, needs to be reinvention. This is Shiffrin's opportunity to go through something and come out better. Her version of sports adversity isn't quite the obstacle that others face. But if she intends to do novel things in the sport, she won't settle. In fact, it doesn't sound like settling will ever be an option for Shiffrin.
"Right now, I'm more disappointed with how I felt on my skis today than with being in fourth," she said. "That's maybe the one saving grace about today for me. I'm not lying when I tell you it's not about the medals. It's not about winning races. It's about how I feel on my skis. I know that - this is going to sound so arrogant - I know I'm the best slalom skier in the world. 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. But the race is when it counts, you know."
Mikaela Shiffrin, temporary also-ran, is stewing. She's thinking deeply and plotting a comeback, even though fourth place in the world is far from a crisis, even though bad weather and a revised schedule forced her to attempt to win gold, while fatigued, on the second day of back-to-back events. But her superhuman standard is her burden. It also means she has more to give.
The next time she amazes, it won't be ho-hum. She has something to overcome, and when she does, there will be no doubt about how enthralling her greatness can be.