When Mikaela Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic champion and ski racing’s most dominant figure for several years, fell on Monday and made an early exit from the women’s giant slalom at the Beijing Olympics, it seemed an anomaly, a glitch that will happen on steeply pitched mountains in slippery conditions.
But Wednesday, Shiffrin did not finish a second race and again lasted only scant seconds before skidding off the course. This time it was her best event, the slalom. She ended up on the side of the trail, where she quickly ditched her skis and poles, sat down in the snow and buried her head between her bent knees. She remained there for more than 20 minutes as her rivals whizzed past.
Nothing in Shiffrin’s professional career would have portended such quick, complete, recurring failure on her sport’s biggest stage. Slalom is ski racing’s most dauntingly precise discipline, but for the most decorated slalom skier in history to last just five seconds in her best event, and in a consequential Olympic race that she has spent four years preparing for, is almost unfathomable.
Shiffrin has three Olympic races left if she chooses to enter them, something that no longer seems a certainty. After her race on Wednesday, she was shaken and confused. In tears as she spoke with reporters, she did not hide her heartbreak.
“I will try to reset again and maybe try to reset better this time,” she said. “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.
“If I am going to ski out on the fifth gate, well, what’s the point?”
Petra Vlhova, who has had a pitched rivalry with Shiffrin throughout this season, came back after an erratic first run to win Wednesday’s race to become the first Alpine Olympic medalist from Slovakia. Katharina Liensberger of Austria was in second place 0.08 behind Vlhova and Wendy Holdener of Switzerland won the bronze medal, trailing Liesnburger by 0.04 of a sescond.
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Shiffrin, who was expected to contend for multiple gold medals at these Games, had trouble in Wednesday’s run almost from the beginning, with her feet and arms not in sync, her balance teetering and the gates seeming to come at her faster than she could react. She nearly fell rounding the fourth gate, and while she was still upright, her usually composed bearing was harried. As she passed the fifth gate, she was heading for the side of the trail and knew her race was over. She was disqualified before the sixth gate.
“I had the intention to do my best skiing and my quickest turns,” Shiffrin said. “But in order to do that I had to push the line, the tactics. And it is really on the limit then. And things happen so fast that there was really not space to slip up even a little bit.”
Her speech irregular, her voice pained, Shiffrin also explained what she had been thinking about while she sat on the side of the trail. She said she was overcome by a feeling of having let herself and others down.
“I was trying to look back and think back on the last days,” she said, “and think what I have been trying to do and what I have been doing with my skiing that would suggest that on the fifth gate I would push myself a little bit too hard to actually not be able to stay on the course.”
Shiffrin, 26, won the 2014 Olympic Games slalom and has dominated the event ever since, winning more World Cup slalom races, 47, than any other racer, male or female. She rarely makes miscues; when she failed to finish a slalom early last month, it was the first time that had happened in nearly four years.
Shiffrin has spent the past weeks talking extensively about all the external obstacles that could prevent her from having success at these Games. She tested positive for the coronavirus in December and was dreading the logistical issues involved with getting to China and the pandemic protocols of life at the Olympics.
In her first days at the Games, she often discussed the wind and the randomness of what could transpire on a gusty mountain. But none of those factors have come into play here. She did not mention anything about the nerves that may have caused her to last just 12 gates in two races. She also did not make excuses, and her attitude on Monday had been upbeat.
All of that was harder to remember on Wednesday.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Shiffrin said, trying to laugh at herself — or perhaps trying to convince herself. “And it’s so stupid to care this much. But I feel that I have to question a lot now.”
Shiffrin has won three medals in two previous Olympics, but these are the first since the death of her father, Jeff Shiffrin, two years ago. That did not escape her mind as she prepared to leave the race area on Wednesday.
“Right now, I would really like to call him,” Shiffrin said.