KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When Michael Phelps would stand on the blocks in an Olympic final and do that thing he did, wrapping his arms around and around and making that whap-whap-whap sound, was there really any doubt in his mind — or anyone’s watching — what was going to happen?
In the chaos of an Olympic short-track speed skating race, when Apolo Anton Ohno toed the line, his bandana tucked under his helmet, his gaze locked like steel on the first few meters of ice ahead, he was all purposeful calm. He knew what was what, and everyone else — on the line around him — and the thousands in the arena did, too.
It takes great physical talent to become an Olympic athlete. A select few have something more. They have an extra level of mental awareness, purposefulness, toughness.
Even on a day when there is no medal — there are those in whom the signs are there of greatness assuredly there to come.
When 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin stepped into the start gate Tuesday morning before her very first Olympic run, it was pounding rain here at the Rosa Khutor Alpine complex, the rain turning to snow up top. Shiffrin took a look over at the TV cameras. She winked. It was on.
Shiffrin finished fifth in that run. She would end the day fifth overall. Tina Maze of Slovenia, back to being the dominant female skier in the world, as she was last season, won her second gold of these Sochi 2014 Olympics, and was so delighted she ripped off her skis and made snow angels, front and back, in the finish area.
Shiffrin, meanwhile, had served notice.
“For that age, she is great,” the 30-year-old Maze said afterwards of Shiffrin. “Amazing.”
The giant slalom is not Shiffrin’s best event. That would be the slalom, coming up Friday. Shiffrin is leading this year’s slalom World Cup standings; she was last year’s slalom World Cup season champ, the youngest skier to win the season title since 1974, and is, moreover, the 2013 world champion.
In giant slalom this season, Shiffrin had come in second in one race, in Beaver Creek, Colo., and third in another, in Lienz, Austria, both in December.
Shiffrin came to Sochi after a block of training in central Europe, on soft snow in Italy, Germany and Austria, anticipating spring-like conditions at Rosa Khutor. “In training,” she had said upon arrival here, “I’ve had a lot of ruts to ski through, and from what I’m hearing, it’ll be good preparation for what I’m going to see.”
That was when it was still sunny here. Then the clouds moved in. Officials knew by Monday evening that conditions for Tuesday’s race were going to be so sketchy that they moved the start of the first run of the giant slalom — it’s two runs, combined total time wins — up from 11 a.m. to 9:30, hoping to get the event in.
None of this fazed Shiffrin.
“I was nervous at the start,” she said. “But when I was in the gate I wasn’t. I just wanted to ski.”
Asked about the rain, and whether it affected her in the first run, she said, “I didn’t really notice it, so I guess not.”
Compare this to Italy’s Nadia Fanchini, third in the first run, who would go on to finish fourth overall: “Obviously, it’s very difficult to ski when it’s raining. Visibility is very poor and glasses get dirty very quickly.”
“I like racing in the rain,” Shiffrin also said with a giggle. “I’ve done a bunch of rainy races before, so those were preparation.”
In this regard, Shiffrin is — to draw another comparison to another breakout performer from Colorado — the American swim star Missy Franklin. When it’s not race time, they are typical teenagers. It’s time to laugh and be normal. When it’s go time, however, the rest of the world can wait.
Strike that. It’s not that the rest of the world can wait. It must wait, and will wait. What’s at hand in the start gate, or on the blocks, is the entire reason that Shiffrin, or Franklin, or others who profoundly get the essence of supreme athletic mission — the sense of being at one with the race, purposeful and energized and unfazed by anything.
“We’re all here to inspire the rest of the world with our sport,” Shiffrin had said, “and that’s exactly what I’m planning to do.”’
This is an 18-year-old talking, ladies and gentlemen.
She also had said that she had anticipated, and planned for, everything. This was, obviously, her first Olympic Games. But not, and this is the key, in her mind.
“It takes a lot of courage,” she had said, “to see yourself at the Olympics, to be able to see that in your head and then brush it away. To everybody else, it’s my first Olympics. But to me, it’s my 1,000th.”
She also told reporters, “I envisioned your questions. I wrote down the answers in my notebook. I have envisioned this moment for quite a while. I’ve envisioned myself on the top step of the podium and on the third step of the podium. I’ve envisioned myself crashing, and I know what mistake I’ve made in my head.”
She didn’t crash Tuesday. She was asked after the first run what she needed to do in the second to get a medal. She replied, “Ski faster.” And she laughed.
The second run was delayed 14 minutes because of heavy snow up top and fog. Again, this didn’t faze Shiffrin.
“For a couple gates,” she said, “you start to convince yourself it’s going to be clear, and then it’s not. I actually didn’t have a problem with visibility. I felt like conditions were really good for how much it was precipitating. I was psyched.”
The second run, she said, “it just boiled down to losing a couple tenths on a couple turns that I didn’t ski as cleanly as the other girls.”
Asked what she would do differently, she said, nothing.
“I wouldn’t re-do any of them,” meaning her two runs, she said, adding, “I think this is supposed to happen.”
Excuse me, said the collected members of the press?
“Well,” Mikaela Shiffrin said, “I wanted a gold. “But I also, as I said — I think this is meant to happen. It’s something I am going to learn from.
“The next Olympics I go to,” she said, “I sure as heck am not getting fifth.”