Mikaela Shiffrin’s confidence, skill a golden combination

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The first Olympics he went to, in his very first race, 15-year-old Michael Phelps took fifth place. He got right back in the pool and, soon enough, he set his first world record. In his next Olympic race — which, because of the calendar, had to wait four years — he won gold.

In her first Olympic race, the women’s giant slalom here Tuesday, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin took fifth. She said, “I think this is supposed to happen,” adding, “The next Olympics I go to, I sure as heck am not getting fifth.”

There are moments, even at the Olympics, that are genuinely special. These moments make memories that last through the years. They also make crossover stars, the ones who can make it big outside the confines of a niche like alpine skiing.

WATCH: Mikaela Shiffrin wins Sochi slalom gold

Shiffrin didn’t have to wait four full years. With a temporary “USA” tattoo on her neck, she sure as heck gave it the full Friday Night Lights treatment here at Rosa Khutor, throwing down two incredible — and very different — runs to win gold in the women’s slalom.

Around her, there was considerable tension, her mother, Eileen, a nurse, joking — maybe — that some anxiety meds would have been in order.

Certain great athletes, however, understand this fundamental truth: the eye of the hurricane is always the calmest place to be. Shiffrin, in calm and composed fashion, purposefully raced down the mountain, into history and her own enormous future.

“I did envision this moment so many times,” Shiffrin said, adding, “Then again, when the chairlift started to start the second run, I started crying a little bit. I started tearing up because I was, like, this actually might happen. And I don’t know what to think if it does. And then it did happen. And I don’t know what to think.

VIDEO: Compare Shiffrin’s runs to silver

“You can visualize this in your head. And you can mentally prepare. And you can make the moment happen. And create your miracle. But when it does happen, it’s hard to put into words how incredible that is.”

The gold medal marked the first for the United States in slalom since 1984, 30 years ago, when Phil Mahre won in Sarajevo, his twin brother, Steve, taking silver.

It was the first for an American woman since Barbara Cochran won in Sapporo in 1972. That is 42 years.

Shiffrin is the youngest gold medalist, ever, in Olympic women’s slalom.

VIDEO: Shiffrin says “my dream was coming true”

“She is just a prodigy,” said Canada’s Marie-Michele Gagnon. “She is unbelievable, strong and confident.”

“I don’t know what to say but — Mikaela, what are you doing?!” Austria’s Kathrin Zettel, the bronze medalist Friday, said, laughing in amazement.

“It’s very nice seeing her skiing because it’s so simple,” said Pernilla Wiberg, the great Swedish champion skier from the 1990s. “It looks so simple as she is skiing down and that is how it should be. It’s like a raindrop on a glass window, going down in a nice rhythm, the same rhythm, all the way down. That’s how she is skiing. It’s really nice to see.”

This is lovely, of course. But the reason Shiffrin won the U.S. national championship at 16, won her first World Cup race at 17 and, now, is Olympic champion at 18 is because she, like Phelps, like all the greats, is mentally so very tough.

Again, at 18.

VIDEO: Shiffrin explains her golden feeling after the race

In the moment, she — like he on the blocks — is all business. Afterward, she — like he — is back to being a normal American teenager.

That is, a normal American teen with an extraordinary gift. And the will to pursue it.

“In alpine skiing, of course, the technical standpoint is very important but more the mental state of mind,” Wiberg said admiringly, “especially at big events like this, and she has it.

“She will be a star to count on for many, many years to come.”

American Resi Stiegler, here at her third Olympics, who hooked a tip and did not finish the second run, said of Shiffrin, “She just trains the way she races. She has a lot of confidence. Those two things together are almost unbeatable.

“She has, you know, that young gun kind of — you know, she hasn’t failed yet. There’s nothing in her mind. A lot of us have been here for a long time. [You] are constantly battling your mind. Where I think she is not battling her mind as much as her skill. Her skill overpowers everything else, which is great.”

Another American, Julia Ford, who finished 24th, said she had been training with Shiffrin the past couple days hoping “to learn from her,” saying that Mikaela “is kind of ahead of the curve right now.” She also said, “She keeps it together really well. And she has been composed this entire week. Which is pretty impressive.”

U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association chief executive and president Bill Marolt sounded the same theme: “She is mature beyond her years. She has got an incredible competitive spirit. Along with that, she is a phenomenal athlete and works unbelievably hard. You put all those things together. She is the real deal.

The way Shiffrin won was evocative of Ted Ligety’s run Wednesday’s men’s giant slalom, when he was ahead by 93-hundredths after the first run and then played it hard but safe in the second run

After Run 1 here Friday, she was ahead by 49-hundredths. In the slalom, that is a lot.

Shiffrin made it sound so very easy.

VIDEO: Shiffrin says “It was an amazing feeling”

“Most of my plan was just to try to move my feet a little faster than everybody else,” she said. “I guess I moved them about five-tenths faster.”

Intriguingly, the gates were set about nine meters about rather than the usual 10 to 11. This meant, of course, the turns came up in even more rapid-fire fashion. For Shiffrin — no big deal.

“That just means you have to move your feet faster,” she said, adding a moment later, “That’s probably the trickiest thing but it’s not actually that big of a deal.”

By the time she stepped into the start gate for Run 2, Shiffrin had a 1.34-second lead over Marlies Schild of Austria, who had taken the late lead through the second run.

She almost careened out halfway down the course on a right-footed turn but caught herself. She then almost straddled the next gate, clearing it by an inch, maybe less.

“That was pretty terrifying for me,” she said. “There I was, I’m going to win my first medal and then in the middle of the run, I’m like — guess not!” She laughed and laughed.

“No!” she said, recalling what she told herself as fought to save the run. “Don’t do that! Do not give up! See this through! I don’t know — my whole goal was just to keep my skis moving.

“I was watching the figure skating last night,” she continued,” and it seemed like the difference between — I don’t know anything about figure skating so if any of them hear this, they’re going to be like, she’s so dumb, she doesn’t know how hard it is — but it seemed like the difference between the girls who, you know, get the win and the ones who don’t is they just keep their skates moving. I was trying to take that into today. Just keep my skis moving, no matter what.”

She would post only posted only the sixth-fastest time in Run 2. But it was plenty good enough.

“She is racing like a girl who is skis in World Cup for many years. It is really great,” said Schild, who would end up taking silver and, at 32, with two prior slalom Olympic medals and 35 World Cup slalom wins, has long been one of Shiffrin’s role models.

“The whole goal of this fiasco,” Shiffrin said afterward, back to talking like a self-deprecating teenager, “was to ski my best, have some fun with it and put on a show for everybody watching. It’s great for me to come down and win every run, win every race. That’s my goal.

“But for everybody else — they’re like, whatever, stop doing that. You know. It’s amazing to have this mix-up and have the two runs and know that it’s a two-run race and anything can happen. I keep proving that to myself every single race that anything can happen. So there, middle of the run — a brain fart.”

She laughed. “I just said that. In public.”

She also said, turning just a tad more serious, “It’s an amazing feeling to win Olympic gold. And it’s going to be something I chalk up as one of my favorite experiences for the rest of my life.

“But,” she said, “my life’s not over yet.”

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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