JEONGSEON, South Korea – Both Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn raced the Alpine super-combined on Friday, the first time the two American skiers competed against each other at the Olympics, and almost surely the last.
The experts made Shiffrin the pre-race favorite for gold. For Vonn, medal prospects were akin to – in her words – Russian roulette.
Shiffrin didn’t win. She did, after a hard-charging slalom, take silver. Vonn, leader after the downhill, hooked a tip in slalom, and skied out, meaning no medal of any sort.
This silver may, when all is said and done, be one of the most important medals Mikaela Shiffrin ever wins. You saw in it real joy. You saw in it leadership. She is, going forward, the face of the U.S. ski team, and the way she embraced that silver means she and the American program have reason to celebrate.
“To have two medals at the Olympics – that’s insane,” Shiffrin said.
With the silver, Shiffrin became the fourth American to win at least three Olympic Alpine ski medals. The others: Vonn (three), Julia Mancuso (four), Bode Miller (six).
Swiss racers went 1-3, Michelle Gisin winning gold, Wendy Holdener bronze.
One of the hardest – perhaps the hardest – thing to do at this level of big-time sports is to meet, or beat, the expectation game.
Coming into these Olympics, the talk was that Shiffrin was going to be the winter version of Michael Phelps. She sought to dismiss that, rightly pointing out that skiing and swimming were apples and oranges.
Even so, since winning Olympic slalom gold in at Sochi 2014 at age 18, Shiffrin has been clear in her desire to compete in all five ski disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill and super-combined. Miller did it. Vonn, too.
Here in PyeongChang, opening up, Shiffrin won gold in GS. But five-for-five was never going to happen. As she acknowledged Friday, she thought she was a contender in three: GS, slalom and super-combined. Then the weather made even racing in her speciality, the slalom, all the more difficult; she took fourth. She skipped super-G and downhill.
All the same, what Shiffrin learned here is key. To win at the Olympics you have to have fun. If that sounds trite, it’s not. She did well Friday because she skied with “no pressure, no expectations” and because, as she realized, “It doesn’t always go perfectly. You try to handle it with grace.”
This was Vonn’s mantra. She took sixth here in super-G. Then third in DH. Because of knee problems, she hasn’t trained much slalom recently.
“I had a huge smile on my face this morning,” Vonn said between legs, adding, “I’m going to give it hell and maybe I can pull out a miracle.”
None was forthcoming. Even so, as she also said, “I am enjoying every second of being here.”
Vonn will keep racing the World Cup tour, needing five wins to tie Ingemark Stenmark of Sweden for most-ever, 86.
Vonn is 33. Shiffrin is 22.
When most of the American public checks back on Alpine racing, at the Beijing 2022 Games, Shiffrin will be 26.
Assuming no major injury between now and then – always a big if in Alpine – how will Shiffrin’s racing further develop? Her leadership skills? The relationship between Mikaela and her mother, Eileen: as is normal with young women in their 20s, how will it evolve?
“I’m in a really good place in my career now,” Shiffrin said Thursday afternoon. “Four years, it looks good – but anything can happen. The thing I’ve learned the most the last couple years is that as soon as I let my brain get ahead of me, where I’m actually at, things start to go downhill.
“It was important to me,” she said, “to focus at the Olympics on my skiing, not the medals.”