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.”

Too early to say whether virus threatens Olympics, WHO says

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GENEVA (AP) — Despite a virus outbreak spreading from China, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday it’s much too soon to say whether the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being cancelled or moved.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.

The U.N. agency’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, said Tuesday the sporting event was “way too far” away to consider giving advice that would affect Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics.

“We are not there to make a decision for that,” Ryan told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a news conference at WHO headquarters.

Geneva-based WHO has been in regular contact with the IOC in nearby Lausanne since the virus known as COVID-19 emerged in December.

“We don’t give them judgments,” Ryan said. “We assist them with their risk assessment. We will be working closely with them in the coming weeks and months.”

The death toll in mainland China due to the virus rose to almost 1,900 on Tuesday, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has caused numerous sports events in China to be canceled, postponed, or moved, including qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

Chinese athletes and teams have also been unable to travel for some competitions. China sent a team of more than 400 athletes to the Rio Olympics. It won 70 medals, including 26 gold, to place second in total medal standings.

Around 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials from more than 200 national teams are expected in Japan for the Olympics.

Japan has experienced the most significant outbreak of the virus outside of China, on the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in quarantine at Yokohama in Tokyo Bay.

During a 14-day isolation that ends Wednesday, 542 cases have been identified among more than 3,700 passengers and crew.

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For Mike Eruzione, Al Michaels, it’s no miracle that 1980 Olympics endure

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Mike Eruzione has been reminded on a daily basis about the Miracle on Ice for nearly four decades. While playing celebrity golf tournaments. At speaking engagements. Or that time he auctioned his jersey and stick from the Soviet game to a 9-year-old boy named Seven.

Eruzione, now 65, likes to open conversations with one anecdote about meeting strangers, which he repeated in a call with reporters last week.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, it’s depending on their age — I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember where I was when we won,” Eruzione said. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’

“But people felt a part of it. … It’s nice to know that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team owns a last name that means “eruption” in Italian. Eruzione scored the decisive goal in the U.S.’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union en route to a shock gold medal during the Cold War in Lake Placid, N.Y.

NBCSN airs a 30-minute special marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET. It will feature a conversation between Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, the play-by-play voice of the game dubbed by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Eruzione has grandchildren now. Three of them skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is,” Eruzione said of the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, “but they know about the Miracle.”

All credit to the U.S. Olympic team of 20 players between ages 19 and 25, back when the NHL did not participate in the Olympics. The Soviets were essentially a team of professionals. The nation won the previous four Olympics and throttled the U.S. 10-3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Enter Michaels, calling hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games alongside Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Michaels, then 35, said he was assigned the sport because he had the most hockey experience on the ABC Olympic talent roster — one game. He called the 1972 Olympic hockey final by himself.

Feb. 22, 1980: As the U.S. led the Soviet Union 4-3 and the final seconds ticked down, one word came to mind: miraculous.

“It got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went,” Michaels said.

Eruzione said he didn’t learn of Michaels’ call — “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” — until two weeks after the Olympics. He didn’t watch the game broadcast until years later.

“I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said, noting he preferred Michaels’ call in the final comeback win over Finland to clinch the gold: “This impossible dream comes true.”

Team members since gathered often — to light the 2002 Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City, for fantasy camps in Lake Placid and for coach Herb Brooks‘ 2003 funeral. Eighteen of the 20 players are scheduled to reunite this weekend in Las Vegas.

Absent will be Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. And Bob Suter, who died in 2014 of a heart attack at age 57.

It was Suter’s death that motivated Eruzione and others to commemorate the 35th anniversary together in Lake Placid. It was believed to be the first time all living players were together in Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Games.

Eruzione said that the 2004 film “Miracle” introduced the team to a new generation. Now at many of his speeches, the majority of Eruzione’s audience was born after 1980.

“I’ll say, how many people watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ and almost everybody raises their hand,” he said. “So I think what the movie did for us as a team was kind of rejuvenated our team as far as people knowing who we were and what we are and what we were about.”

NFL coaches set up “Miracle” viewings for their teams before games. Michael Phelps watched it for motivation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Phelps told relay teammates, “This is our time,” before they beat rival Australia. An ode to Brooks’ pregame speech before the Soviet game.

Michaels, whose 13-year-old grandson won an October hockey tournament in Lake Placid, said he watched “Miracle” last week for the first time in about a decade. He helped do voiceovers in production more than 15 years ago, though the original Lake Placid audio was used for his signature call.

“The great thing is, in a way, when you watch it back or you watch highlights back, you almost become like in the third person, like somebody else is doing this and announcing this game,” Michaels said. “I exult the way I think most of the country did and do when they see highlights of it. So it’s kind of an out-of-body experience in a way, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

After Eruzione shared his tale of strangers’ memories, Michaels added one of his own.

“One of my favorite stories is Mike Eruzione calling me maybe eight to 10 years ago and saying, ‘The greatest thing about this is every time I come home and maybe I’m a little down, I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll put the tape in,'” Michaels said. “‘Every time I shoot, the puck goes in. It will forever.'”

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