Mikaela Shiffrin’s confidence, skill a golden combination

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source: AP
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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.”

Diamond League slate ends in Doha with record holders; TV, stream info

Mondo Duplantis
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The Diamond League season ends on Friday in the place where it was supposed to start — Doha.

Like many sports, track and field’s calendar was put in disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The Doha meet, originally scheduled for April 17 to open an Olympic season, was postponed five months while other stops were canceled altogether.

Now, Doha caps an unlikely season that still produced stirring performances. NBCSN coverage starts at 12 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold also streams live for subscribers.

The headliner is Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a leading contender for Male Athlete of the Year. Duplantis, who twice bettered the world record in February at indoor meets, last week produced the highest outdoor clearance in history, too, breaking a 26-year-old Sergey Bubka record.

Duplantis can mimic Bubka on Friday by attempting to raise his world record another centimeter — to 6.19 meters, or more than 20 feet, 3 inches.

The deepest track event in Doha is the finale, the women’s 3000m, featuring 3000m steeplechase world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, 5000m world champion Hellen Obiri and rising 1500m runner Gudaf Tsegay.

Here are the Doha entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

11:18 a.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
11:33 — Men’s 200m
12:03 p.m. — Men’s 400m
12:08 — Women’s Long Jump
12:12 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
12:21 — Men’s 1500m
12:34 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
12:43 — Women’s 800m
12:56 — Women’s 100m
1:07 — Men’s 800m
1:18 — Women’s 3000m

Here are three events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 11:18 a.m.
Duplantis looks to complete a perfect 2020 against his two primary rivals — reigning world champion and American Sam Kendricks (who went undefeated in 2017) and 2012 Olympic champion and former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. Kendricks was the last man to beat Duplantis, at those 2019 World Championships, and is the only man to clear a height within nine inches of Duplantis’ best this outdoor season.

Women’s 100m — 12:56 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah looks poised to finish the year as the world’s fastest woman after clocking 10.85 seconds in Rome last week, her fastest time outside of Jamaica in more than three years. That’s one hundredth faster than countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s best time of 2020. Thompson-Herah was fifth and fourth at the last two world championships after sweeping the Rio Olympic sprints. Like in Rome, her primary challengers in Doha are Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou and 2018 U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Women’s 3000m — 1:18 p.m.
A meeting of titans in a non-Olympic event. Chepkoech is the fastest steeplechaser in history by eight seconds. Obiri is the fastest Kenyan in history in the 3000m and the 5000m. Tsegay, just 23, chopped 3.26 seconds off her 1500m personal best in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships to become the second-fastest Ethiopian in history in that event. In all, the field includes five medalists from the 2019 Worlds across four different events.

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s return from destruction, death to sprinting

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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