MERIBEL – Practically the only person not asking Mikaela Shiffrin if this was the Beijing Olympics all over again was herself.
That’s because the American skier learned so much from that disappointing performance a year ago when she didn’t finish three of her five individual races and didn’t win a medal amid enormous expectations. She was able to quickly compartmentalize another DNF — “Did Not Finish” in skiing lingo — on Monday in the opening race of the world championships.
This time, Shiffrin straddled the third-to-last gate in the slalom portion of the combined race, ending what had appeared destined to be a gold-medal winning run.
“Everyone’s going to ask, ‘Oh is this Beijing again?’” she said. “I didn’t really think about that for myself, but more for the people asking.
“But I also said before coming into this world champs multiple times, I’m not afraid if it happens again,” Shiffrin added, her voice cracking with emotion. “What if I don’t finish every run like what happened last year? I survived and I’ve had some pretty amazing races this season. So I would take the season that I’ve had with no medals at the world championships. But I’m going to be pushing for medals because that’s what you do at world champs. ... And I’m not afraid of the consequences as long as I have that mentality, which I had today. So, it’s good.”
It's the same mentality Shiffrin has had all season, as she's won 11 of her 23 World Cup races to put her well on her way to a fifth overall title — generally regarded as the most important prize in ski racing.
She won three races within six days two weeks ago to raise her career tally to 85 World Cup wins, breaking former teammate Lindsey Vonn’s women’s record of 82 and moving within one of the overall mark set by Ingemar Stenmark in the 1970s and 80s.
World championship races do not count toward World Cup wins. It's the medals that skiers are after.
Having stood sixth and nearly a full second behind eventual gold medalist Federica Brignone after the super-G run, Shiffrin was charging to make up time in the slalom leg and was doing a great job at that until she lost control and stuck her right ski high in the air like an acrobat to regain her balance. The recovery, however, forced Shiffrin to place one ski on the wrong side of a red gate.
In a split second, she went from eyeing gold to being disqualified.
Seconds later, when she came to a stop in the finish area and realized what happened, Shiffrin dropped her mouth open incredulously. Then she rested on her ski poles and started analyzing what went wrong. Or better yet, what went right.
Because to be fair, this was an improvement from Beijing, where she often fell early in her runs and was nowhere near the form she’s in now.
“Of course, I’m disappointed not to finish and not to get a medal, but I’m also quite excited because I was skiing really well,” Shiffrin said as the Italian anthem played and Brignone was awarded the winner’s honors right behind her. “My mentality in the start for the slalom was to take all the risk, full-gas skiing top to bottom, push the whole way and take the risk that it might not work. I might ski off the course because slalom is like that — there’s no room for error."
Grippier snow at the end of the Roc de Fer course — the slope used for the 1992 Albertville Olympics — tripped Shiffrin up.
“I saw that in inspection," she said. "So I thought, ‘I have to be very strong with my position. I have to stay active, but I can’t take my foot off the gas. And this could be a section that’s tricky. It could be something that actually gets me if I take the full speed of the course.’ And in the end it did.”
The biggest positive takeaway was that she made up all of the time on Brignone before her mishap.
“I didn’t know if I could do that,” said Shiffrin, who didn’t finish a run of a technical race for the first time since the Olympics. “So I’m excited that I accomplished that.”
Now Shiffrin has a day to recover before racing again Wednesday in the super-G, an event she won’t be the outright favorite in. Then she’ll likely leave Meribel for several days to train elsewhere for her best events of giant slalom and slalom at the end of next week.
“I love how I’m skiing. I love the feeling I have every time I get on my skis, no matter what event,” Shiffrin said. “Unfortunately, you also have to face the side of the sport where it doesn’t work, you don’t finish and everyone’s disappointed — that’s the negative side or the sad side. But overall, it’s just been such an insane, amazing season and I feel like I don’t have to get motivated. I just keep it rolling and keep going with the skiing I have because it’s been the best I’ve ever done.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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