KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – This shouldn't have been an easily solvable hill for an 18-year-old. It should've been cold fusion. Rainy, crunchy, freezing-cold fusion.
But as anyone who didn't already know discovered on Tuesday, Mikaela Shiffrin isn't the usual 18-year-old.
In a race that defied anything typical about Alpine skiing, Shiffrin showcased in her Olympic debut why so many have come to believe in her so much. Competing in a giant slalom discipline that she is just now understanding, Shiffrin finished an impressive fifth, just missing the medal podium by .23 seconds. She did it by carving up a mountain that was a triple-layer cake of garbage – fat snowy fog on top, sheets of ice pebbles in the middle and a torrential downpour at the bottom.
For the veteran field, it was an extreme environment. For an 18-year old in her first race, it should have been sheer terror. But Shiffrin shrugged it off as her first learning lesson on the big stage – something that will put her where she belongs in her next Olympics. That's how confident this kid is – she's already talking about the 2018 adjustments.
"I wanted a gold, but I think this was meant to happen," Shiffrin said. "It's something that I'll learn from. Next Olympics that I go to, I'm sure as heck not getting fifth."
You watch her and try not to get too far ahead of yourself. But, yes, there will be a next Olympics for this girl and probably a few more after that. She has a talent and subtle swagger that's impossible not to love, and a focused nonchalance about her performances that is almost scary.
To put it into perspective, the three women who finished on the podium in Tuesday's event were:
• Slovenia's Tina Maze: a 30-year-old veteran with four Olympic medals (including two golds at these games) who is currently ranked the No. 1 overall skier in the world.
• Austria's Anna Fenninger: a 24-year-old veteran with two Olympic medals (gold and silver in these games) who is the No. 3 overall skier in the world.
• Germany's Viktoria Rebensburg: a 24-year-old veteran and two-time Olympic medalist who won giant slalom gold in the 2010 Vancouver Games and is ranked the No. 6 overall skier in the world.
There are few podiums with more talent, and Shiffrin hung with that group through despicable conditions. And when she came off the course, she wasn't impressed with what she had done.
"It wasn't necessarily the worst-case scenario," Shiffrin said. "The visibility was better than I thought it was going to be and the conditions were really good for how much it was precipitating. I think it was a pretty fair race. I'm just really in awe of the top three girls, and also the fourth girl because she was ahead of me, too."
That last line drew a chuckle from those within earshot, because it was both respectful and kind of cocky. Shiffrin seems to ooze that, which, aside from her seven World Cup wins and dominance in the slalom, might explain why she's carrying the "Next Lindsey Vonn" tag. It may actually be a good thing she didn't medal in the giant slalom, because if she manages to take home hardware as expected in the slalom that would have given her two Olympic medals … which is exactly what Vonn has right now.
Others are noticing.
"At that age, she's great," Maze said of Shiffrin. "She's amazing."
After the first of two runs, which were combined for one time, Shiffrin said she lost all of her nervousness when she stepped up to the starting gate. It showed as she skied well, finishing the first leg .91 behind Maze, who paced the field. In the second run she skied .41 faster than the gold medalist. Not mistake-free, but closer to it than most thought possible. Except for Shriffin, that is.
"I'm thinking gold medal," Shriffin said of her mindset after her first run. "I made up some time [on the second run]. …It boiled to a couple turns, mostly on the pitch I think."
While other skiers out of the medals blamed the weather – and they have plenty of reason – Shiffrin blamed only herself. Her mistakes, and she'd learn from them. As far as she was concerned, Tuesday's race was everything she could hope for.
"It was a pretty spectacular day, actually," she said. "It's not sunny, but on the other hand, who gets to race their first Olympics in rain this bad when there is still snow on the ground, right?
"I wouldn't redo any of [the runs]. I think this was supposed to happen."