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YANQING, China — A single tear hovered in her eyelash, then dropped to icy snow, and here, on the Olympic hill that could have been hers, with unmet expectations flooding over her, Mikaela Shiffrin broke down.
An hour earlier, she’d sat alone on the side of a slalom course, pondering why she’d failed to complete it. With goggles perched on helmet, she’d looked around, and into the past, in search of something, anything, that could have predicted this.
For the second time in three days, she’d lasted just five gates. She’d skied out of an Olympic race she was expected to win, this time the one she’d won in 2014, and Mikaela, a reporter asked, what happened?
She squeezed her eyes shut. She scrunched her face.
“Um,” she said, and then she turned her head and surveyed Xiaohaituo Mountain for answers. Ten seconds passed. Fifteen. Twenty.
“I — I was pushing,” she finally said. “And maybe it was just past my limit.”
Shiffrin, though, had spent a decade pushing past limits and shattering records, winning more World Cup slalom races than anybody, ever. She’d snatched Olympic golds and stepped onto countless podiums, and all of it, “my entire career,” she said, “has taught me to trust in my skiing.” When nerves crept and pressure closed in, she’d “go back to that fundamental idea that good skiing will be there for me.” It had, over a lifetime in the sport, become one of the most reliable things in her life.
And then, this week in Yanqing, it deserted her.
Which is why she felt bereft, and “yeah,” she said, betrayed. Betrayed by otherworldly talent that she thought lived within her but that, on Monday and Wednesday, hid elsewhere.
“I feel that I have to question a lot now,” she said, and that’s around when her breathing got heavy, and a single tear became several, and the several started to flow. Her press officer placed a comforting hand on her back.
Shiffrin came to Beijing eyeing five individual races and multiple medals. After slipping in Monday’s giant slalom, she vowed to rebound. But Wednesday left her wondering whether she could.
“I will try to reset again,” she said. “And maybe try to reset better this time. But I also don't know how to do it better. Because I just don't — I've never been in this position before, and I don't know how to handle it.”
She had, in fact, never failed to finish back-to-back technical races since 2011-12, her first year on the World Cup circuit. She’d skied down dozens of mountains, at various speeds, and almost always across finish lines. DNFs, she said, had “never been an issue in my entire career.” Alpine skiing perfection does not exist, but Shiffrin had ascended into a stratosphere closer to it than anybody ever had.
Ahead of Beijing, she’d rebounded from family tragedy, and returned to something close to her best. She felt “good” upon arrival, and even after a “productive” Monday afternoon slalom training session, hours after her giant slalom wipeout. She felt confident.
And then, after some 16 seconds of competitive skiing in total, her two best medal opportunities vanished. She wished “there was a little more space or more time,” but she knew there wasn’t. She sounded unsure if she’d even race in the downhill or super-G next week. “If I'm gonna ski out on the fifth gate,” she said, “like, what's the point?”
She spoke with reporters for 40 minutes, laughing and crying and thinking, processing the most difficult day of her Olympic career. “It's so stupid to care this much,” she said at one point, but 10 minutes later, she realized why she did. “It feels like a really big letdown,” she said, a letdown of others and herself.
“There were some people who expected I might win, maybe hoped I might win,” she explained. “I know that, for the people working closest to me, we were all crossing our fingers, and also doing all the work I could possibly do to give myself the best chance.
“We came all this way. And we're not done yet. But GS and slalom, those were my biggest focuses. It really feels like a lot of work for nothing.”