PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – As the late, great Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part.
Mikaela Shiffrin made it look – almost – easy.
Confronted with weather-related delays that pushed back the start of her 2018 Winter Games. the American ski star captured the keen mental edge it takes to ski on the edge, but not beyond, to win Olympic gold in the women’s giant slalom.
In Sochi, an 18-year-old Shiffrin won gold in slalom but finished fifth in GS. She vowed to become No. 1 in GS, too.
Turning 23 next month, she is now a two-time Olympic champion, winner of a first medal for the United States in women’s giant slalom since Julia Mancuso’s Torino 2006 gold. Shiffrin is also just the sixth woman in Olympic history to win gold in both the slalom and giant slalom, joining the likes of Andrea Mead-Lawrence of the United States and Croatia’s Janica Kostelić.
“To come here and do that today – was incredible,” Shiffrin said.
More incredible, perhaps: Shiffrin is just getting started here in PyeongChang. She skis the slalom on Friday.
Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel took silver, 39-hundredths behind Shiffrin. Italy’s Federica Brignone got bronze, 46-hundredths back. For all the success of Norway’s men’s alpine team – the Attacking Vikings are a thing, and Axel Lund Svindal Kjetl Jansrud went 1-2 on Thursday in the Olympic downhill about 25 miles away – Mowinckel’s silver is the first women’s alpine medal for Norway since 1936, when Laila Schou Nilsen took bronze in the combined.
The sun shone Thursday on the women’s GS. The Yongpyong course was the place to be: even the North Korean cheer squad was on hand. Temperatures crept close to 30 degrees after days of howling winds.
Those winds are why the slalom, scheduled for Wednesday, is now set for Friday. The GS had been due to go Monday.
How would the delays affect Shiffrin? Several theories emerged.
One: it was better if she went first in giant slalom, GS being more wide-open and, if this can ever be said in alpine racing, more forgiving.
Shiffrin’s trendline in GS: second at the 2017 world championships, second in the 2016-17 World Cup standings, two GS wins this World Cup season.
When giant slalom got pushed back, that meant the Wednesday slalom would have been Shiffrin’s opener — her best event.
Shiffrin has publicly committed to skiing only GS and slalom.
The program offers five medals. As it sets up now, and again allowing for the weather, Shiffrin could now be skiing back-to-back-to-back – giant slalom, slalom, super-G; Thursday, Friday, Saturday – with no rest day.
That’s a big ask. By comparison, Lindsey Vonn is not skiing slalom events.
No matter what, Shiffrin was going to be on the outside looking in on GS.
Pernilla Wilberg, the Albertville 1992 GS (and Lillehammer 1994 combined) winner, tweeted out this GS podium prediction a few days ago: Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg, Italy’s Brignone and Norway’s Mowinckel.
Not bad. As things turned out, Mowinckel got second, Brignone third, Rebensburg fourth.
Of course, the one name Wiberg left out? Shiffrin.
Which leads, finally, to one for the thumb:
This is Shiffrin’s moment. Simply, she is as set up for these Games as can be.
Shiffrin thrives on volume training – practice, practice and more practice. Windy on Wednesday? She was training GS.
In late January, Shiffrin was mentally tired. She took a few days off, then came early to PyeongChang to practice, practice, practice. On race day, such practice translates to confidence.
When she woke up Thursday, she said, she wasn’t particularly nervous. In the start gate, “my biggest moments were, ‘Just go for it, you have nothing to lose.”
The course here suits Shiffrin. It’s full of terrain, meaning a lot of turns, which plays to her strengths. As well, the snow is hard and has a feel that racers call “grippy.” Shiffrin likes “grippy.”
The first run put Shiffrin into second place, just two-tenths of a second behind Italy’s 34-year-old Manuela Moelgg.
As usual, Shiffrin took a between-run nap. “For me,” she said, “that’s one of my favorite times of race day, when I can lie down and go, whoo.”
Skiing second-to-last, Shiffrin knew what she had to do to catch Mowinckel, out of the start gate just two places ahead. At every interval, Shiffrin was ahead, as much as 87-hundredths at the third of four markers. A slight bobble near the end, and Shiffrin crossed in 2:20.02 – the big scoreboard reading “1,” Mowinckel now on the next line down in 2:20.41, Brignone third in 2:20.48.
Too often, Shiffrin said, she had felt in some GS races that she had skied as if she had something to lose. Not here. No way, no how: “The Olympics is not about protecting the lead. It’s about putting your best on the line and seeing what happens.”
Moelgg ended up eighth.
Friday is a new day. Friday brings the slalom.
Shiffrin said, “I know what I have to do.”