Mikaela Shiffrin’s stumbles magnified by the Olympics lens

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Mikaela Shiffrin sat there in the snow, wondering, just like everyone else, what the heck had just happened. There weren’t any tears — not yet — because she was too stunned for that.

And she sat there some more, by the mountainside, reflecting on how five seconds — just five seconds — were enough to turn what we’d been conditioned to believe was a certain medal into all these waves of disappointment.

Skiers carried on down the course, one after another, none of them with the pedigree and history of Shiffrin in her favored event of the slalom. For many of them, the remarkable exit of the American opened up the possibility of an upset where none had previously seemed feasible.

Between them, Shiffrin and Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova have won 39 of the past 42 World Cup slalom races. Vlhova recovered from a poor first run that left her in eighth and stormed back to win gold with a blistering second leg.

After Shiffrin’s shock, do we really need any more reminders that anything can happen in sports? The games and events we love never fail to throw up confounding outcomes and somehow upend even the most nailed-on of certainties.

The way Shiffrin’s time at Beijing 2022 has panned out so far was something no one saw coming. Not since the 2011 season, when she was just 16 years old, has Alpine skiing’s biggest superstar recorded the sport’s dreaded DNF — did not finish — in consecutive events. On Sunday night (U.S. time), she lasted just 11 seconds in the giant slalom before an error ended her run.

Tuesday’s effort was supposed to be about redemption. It quickly proved not to be.

In many sports, this kind of thing can’t happen. In Sunday’s Super Bowl, either Matthew Stafford or Joe Burrow could throw a pick-six on each of their first three drives, and still, the game wouldn’t be over.

Tiger Woods in his pomp could make a triple-bogey on the opening hole of a Major and still come back and win the whole darn thing.

But in skiing, there is no forgiveness. Slalom awards the gold to the skier with the lowest aggregate time on two runs separated by a few hours. But if you miss a gate and don’t complete your trek down the hill, you don’t get that second go-around.

Mikaela Shiffrin is pictured after not finishing the first run of the women’s slalom during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 9, 2022. (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Minutes passed, and still, Shiffrin stayed there, looking every now and then at the third gate, the one that cut short her run on a course set up by her coach. Such things are done on a lottery basis, and it was thought the shorter distance between gates would favor her.

“Makes me second-guess the last 15 years,” she told reporters later, as the tears finally came. “Everything I thought I knew about my own skiing and slalom and racing mentality. Just processing a lot, for sure.”

For the technically minded, here is what happened. She came out aggressively and fast, looking to build speed and avoid stagnating on a flat top of the course. However, the tactic backfired. Her skis straightened too much, too quickly, pointing down the mountain instead of across to the next targeted gate. 

That approach meant she got too low, too soon. Trying to regain control, her skis skidded from beneath her and pulled her even further off course. And then, it was over, with a yell of frustration and a collective “what the … ?” from those watching.

Let’s say this one more time, and believe me, I’m doing this as much for my own benefit as anything else because I’m guilty of it, too: There are no sure things in sports.

Just because someone is the face of an Olympic campaign, like Simone Biles was and like Shiffrin is, remember that there is always a field full of competitors trying to stop them. And in sports with a fiendish level of difficulty, there is always the chance that something will happen — unforeseen events and, even from the very best, improbable mistakes.

“Unfortunately, that’s ski racing,” Olympic legend Lindsey Vonn said on NBC.

Just because sponsors decide to put someone in a flurry of commercials and a broadcast network opts to spend more time on an athlete than any of their peers doesn’t give them extra points or a head-start or any kind of advantage at all.

Shiffrin’s edge was simply that she has proven herself capable of performing at a historically high level. The odds were in her favor. But fate chose to time its biggest mischief for the grandest stage of all, which is sometimes how it goes.

Shiffrin is immensely likable and personable and a fine ambassador for her sport. She lost her father, Jeff, two years ago and chose to honor his memory by sharing some of the thousands of photographs he took while following the skiing scene throughout her career.

She has been an athlete of metronomic consistency — until now. But she’s a human, too. She’s not immune to nerves, and she’s certainly not buffered against the dark throes of feeling that she let herself down.

She takes it hard when things don’t work out. She’ll take this one harder than ever. Hopefully, she’ll find some perspective quickly and be able to shrug off the pain, but don’t count on it because that’s not normally how sporting greats operate.

Eventually, after 26 minutes Tuesday, Shiffrin rose to her feet and made her way down the mountain to face a flurry of questions and to try to get ready for her three remaining events.

“I feel really bad,” she added. “There is a lot more going on than just my little situation, but I feel really bad for … for doing that.”

In one of her disciplines to come — the combined, on the night of Feb. 16 — she will again be the favorite. She’s good enough to win it. She might do so. On pre-Beijing form, she could be forgiven for thinking it’s hers to lose.

But if these Winter Olympics have taught us anything, it’s that it’s rarely as simple as that.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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