Five-ring Circus

The Agony of Watching America’s Most Beloved Skier Sit in the Snow

A close-up of Mikaela Shiffrin pursing her lips and looking down
Mikaela Shiffrin at National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing, China, on Wednesday. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The bright side for Mikaela Shiffrin, if she can ever bring herself to see it, is that she’s setting herself up for one hell of a redemption arc. On Wednesday morning in Beijing, two days after Shiffrin had skied out in the giant slalom (the event where she’d won gold in 2018), she did the exact same thing in the slalom (the event where she’d won gold in 2014), ending her day five seconds after it started.

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If NBC’s alpine skiing commentators had been shocked at Shiffrin’s first error, this time they were flat-out incredulous that she’d biffed a gate at the very top of the course. “It’s … it’s unimaginable,” said NBC’s Dan Hicks, fumbling for words. “OK, sure, it is … a precarious discipline, the slalom. And … and … sure, she skied out after five gates the other day. But twice … in a span like this, in her specialty?” As Hicks tried to make sense of what we’d all just seen, the greatest slalom skier ever skied over to the side of the slope, near a red mesh fence. She sat down on the snow and buried her head in her arms.

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“That is heartbreaking,” said NBC’s Ted Ligety, himself a two-time gold medalist. “That’s … that will play in slow motion, for ages to come, in her mind.” Meanwhile, Shiffrin continued to sit in the snow, while 15 lower-ranked skiers zoomed past her, all of them getting farther down the course than she did. Shiffrin was still sitting there when NBC’s prime-time telecast cut away to “a sneak peek at part of Toyota’s ‘Start Your Impossible’ campaign.” The campaign seemed redundant. The most impossible thing at the Games had already happened.

It only felt like Shiffrin sat there forever, off to the side of the Olympic slalom course. In truth, she was in the snow for about 20 of the most brutal minutes in Olympics television history. At one point, her mother made her way over and sat down with her. A bunch of other people from Team USA eventually showed up too, huddling around the suddenly mortal superstar. On Monday, after she went out in the giant slalom, Shiffrin said that she can’t help but dwell on her worst racing moments. On Wednesday, she wasn’t just dwelling on the moment. She was taking up residence inside it.

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Finally, the saddest skier in Beijing got up and skied downhill, toward the course-side reporter who was waiting to ask an unanswerable question. “Mikaela, I know you’re processing a lot, but as you look back on that run, what exactly happened?” asked NBC’s Todd Lewis.

“Um,” Shiffrin said, sighing and shaking her head. “I think I just slipped?” She shrugged in disbelief and trailed off for a moment. When she spoke again, she labored over her words.

“I had every intention to go full gas,” she said. “And there wasn’t really space in the course to, um, I don’t know, to slip. Not even a little bit. I didn’t give myself space for that. And, in my experience, that mentality has brought my best skiing. And … today I went out on the fifth gate.” She sighed and closed her eyes and paused for a long time. “So, yeah,” she finally said, barely holding back tears.

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Lewis then asked Shiffrin what, if anything, she was still processing about her five-second slalom run. “Um, pretty much everything,” she said. “Makes me second-guess … like, the last 15 years. Everything I thought I knew about my own skiing, and slalom, and … racing mentality.”

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If she seemed shocked in her post-race interview on Monday, on Wednesday she sounded broken. While it would be foolish to let two mistakes overshadow a decade’s worth of sustained excellence, you just need to look at Shiffrin, and listen to her, to understand that these consecutive DNFs will be hard to banish from her mind.

Although the giant slalom and the slalom are her two strongest events, the 26-year-old still has three races left in Beijing, if she chooses to enter the starting gate. Given Shiffrin’s stature in her sport and prominence in NBC’s promotional plans, comparisons to Simone Biles’ plight in Tokyo now feel inevitable. In winter sports, the best analog is perhaps speedskater Dan Jansen, who suffered through a yearslong Olympic curse. The comparison is imperfect, given that Shiffrin already has three Olympic medals, and her poor run of form has lasted only a couple of days. But America’s greatest skier is clearly shaken, and uncertain about her future in the sport she’s dominated for her whole career.

Dan Jansen’s Olympic story ended with a triumphant, cathartic gold medal performance. Mikaela Shiffrin has the talent and the drive to write that kind of ending for herself. But on Wednesday, sitting down in the snow, the finish line looked very far away.

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