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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.”