YONGPYONG, South Korea — Early on in the second of her two runs in the ladies’ slalom, while making a right-to-left turn around one of the 62 flags that dotted the Rainbow slope at YongPyong, Mikaela Shiffrin’s right ski slipped. She got the tiniest bit loose — not even enough to qualify as a stumble — but it drew a pained “oooooh” from the crowd below. And, as it turned out, that infinitesimal slip was enough to leave Shiffrin entirely off the podium she was expected to own.
The cruelest aspect of the Olympics is the thin line between victory and oblivion, between wearing life-changing hardware around your neck, and going home with empty hands and, at best, a four-year wait for redemption. Shiffrin, who’d sparked — not without reason — talk of winning five golds at this year’s Games, missed out on her second win in two days by four-tenths of a second. She missed out on a medal entirely by eight one-hundredths of a second. Just for reference: It takes one- to four-tenths of a second to blink your eye.
No sane analysis of this event ends with the conclusion that Shiffrin choked. She didn’t fall apart. She ended up on the wrong side of the cruel Olympian metric that dices an entire race into microseconds.
But the question that we have to ask — that Shiffrin was already asking herself even before her competitors finished their runs — is this: How much did nerves play into this loss? Could she have turned a four-tenths deficit into a six-tenths victory with a steadier mind? She vomited immediately before her first run, one that left her in a fourth-place hole she couldn’t climb out of, and admitted after the race that it was nerves, not a virus, that had sent her stomach twirling.
Speaking in the mixed zone at the bottom of the mountain, Shiffrin tried to make sense of how such an overwhelming favorite could fall short. After a question about whether those nerves had affected her, she paused a long time before speaking.
“I think it’s more my own expectations, knowing the magnitude of what I’m trying to do,” she said. “It’s less about what everyone wants to see. When I get into the start gate, it’s about what I want to accomplish. Today, I didn’t feel I was up to the challenge when I was skiing. It was a big disappointment.”
Sure, there are excuses available. Multiple delays forced Shiffrin into the uncomfortable position of racing without adequate downtime; on Thursday night, when the notoriously nap-loving Shiffrin should have been heading toward bed, she was instead standing on a stage waiting to receive the gold medal she’d won in the giant slalom earlier in the day. The afterglow from the joy of that victory lasted well into the time she needed to get into the right headspace for this race.
“I beat myself in the wrong way today,” she said. “Rather than focusing on the good skiing I know I can do, I was conservative. [And then] I was trying to do something special, and I don’t need to do anything special, I just need to ski the race I can ski.”
But what this does is ramp up the pressure exponentially for Shiffrin’s next time atop the mountain. Nerves breed nerves. If you’re worried about the pressure to perform and you come up short, your brain’s got to do double duty, not only forgetting the past debacle but staying present in the moment for the next race.
“Moving forward? I’m terrible at that,” she laughed. “Every single loss, I remember that feeling so thoroughly. A piece of my heart breaks off and I can never get it back. Today is no different.”
And there won’t be many next races in PyeongChang for Shiffrin. The dream of five golds is gone; Shiffrin won’t compete in Saturday’s Super G, and that’s a wise move. Friday afternoon, she even hinted that she might only race one more event.
When she does next snap into her skis, she won’t just be competing against the mountain and six dozen of the finest skiers in the world. She’ll also be trying to outrace the voices in her head, the voices that plague every single one of us. She’s done it before, but as anyone who’s wrestled with nerves can attest, past victories don’t always guarantee future success.
“I don’t have an explanation [for the loss],” she said. “I’m going to be going back and evaluating the whole day … we’ll all figure out what happened today to try to avoid it in the future.”
All the rationalizations and we’ll-get-’em-next-times in the world won’t blot out the fact that this was an unexpected defeat, and a brutal one. It was an eye-blink from being a victory, which makes the loss hurt all the more. And for Shiffrin, who remains one of the most talented skiers of her generation, this will haunt her until she’s back atop the podium.
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