Mikaela Shiffrin

Add it up: Shiffrin's 15, 36, 51 deserving of recognition

Add it up: Shiffrin's 15, 36, 51 deserving of recognition

No disrespect to Serena Williams — this space wrote 20 months ago that she ought to light the cauldron for a Los Angeles Olympics, and that was before the International Olympic Committee picked LA for the 2028 Olympics — but the fact that Serena Williams didn’t win a Grand Slam in 2018 and Mikaela Shiffrin on Saturday capped her best year ever by becoming the most successful slalom skier in the 52-year history of the World Cup, and Serena Williams was named Associated Press female athlete of the year and Shiffrin didn’t even crack the top five is just plain … 

Wrong. 

And stupid.

Maybe the most important medal Mikaela Shiffrin ever wins: this silver

Maybe the most important medal Mikaela Shiffrin ever wins: this silver

JEONGSEON, South Korea — Both Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn raced the Alpine super-combined on Friday, the first time the two American skiers competed against each other at the Olympics, and almost surely the last. 

The experts made Shiffrin the pre-race favorite for gold. For Vonn, medal prospects were akin to — in her words — Russian roulette

Shiffrin didn’t win. She did, after a hard-charging slalom, take silver. Vonn, leader after the downhill, hooked a tip in slalom, and skied out, meaning no medal of any sort.

This silver may, when all is said and done, be one of the most important medals Mikaela Shiffrin ever wins. You saw in it real joy. You saw in it leadership. She is, going forward, the face of the U.S. ski team, and the way she embraced that silver means she and the American program have reason to celebrate.

“To have two medals at the Olympics — that’s insane,” Shiffrin said.

For more, please visit NBCOlympics.com: http://bit.ly/2GBlzRf

Shiffrin: "I beat myself the wrong way today"

Shiffrin: "I beat myself the wrong way today"

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Alpine racing is brutally difficult and especially unforgiving. On any given race day, a dizzying array of variables may come into play: weather, light, snow, wind, wax and more. 

Not to mention the weight of pressure, expectation and history.

It’s enough to make anyone upchuck. Even Mikaela Shiffrin. Who did exactly that Friday before the first of the two runs that make up the Olympic slalom.

“I guess everybody knows now, after puking before the first run,” Shiffrin would say after Friday’s racing had concluded and the scoreboard said she had taken fourth in her signature event, the slalom, “you know, that was me -- I don't know, it wasn’t even pressure, really, nerves. It's just -- I beat myself the wrong way today.”

For more, please visit NBCOlympics.com: http://bit.ly/2oaJsrd

Mikaela Shiffrin, with "nothing to lose," wins Olympic giant slalom gold

Mikaela Shiffrin, with "nothing to lose," wins Olympic giant slalom gold

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.

For more, please visit NBCOlympics.com: http://bit.ly/2GhF1Ca

No race yet for Shiffrin? No problem

No race yet for Shiffrin? No problem

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Disappointed at the postponement of Monday’s women’s giant slalom because of the weather?

Not Mikaela Shiffrin.

“It’s a bummer that we’re not able to race today," she said. "But with the training block I’ve had, I’m prepared and feeling good.

“I’ll use this time to continue to train and re-focus on Wednesday’s slalom race. We have a great gym and space to eat and take plenty of naps, so I’ll use this time to recharge.”

In a perhaps not immediately obvious way, postponement of the giant slalom — Shiffrin’s second-best event — may serve to further her overall medal prospects here at the PyeongChang Olympics.

For more, please visit NBCOlympics.com: http://bit.ly/2nSUn9C

Feeling 22, and everything is so all right

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The American racer Mikaela Shiffrin on Friday clinched enough points to win the fancy crystal globe that goes to the alpine World Cup tour’s best overall female skier.

She becomes just the third American to win the season title. Tamara McKinney won it in 1983. Lindsey Vonn has won four big globes, as they like to call it on the tour, most recently in 2012. Now comes Mikaela Shiffrin, who just this past Monday turned 22.

Taylor Swift could not have put it any better. Everything will be so all right.

This is the stuff of compelling cross-over stardom.

Mikaela Shiffrin is already an Olympic champion, the heavy favorite to win again at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in not just one but perhaps three events — slalom, giant slalom and combined — and already so much more, the rare athlete who not only has a calm and a presence about her but, at 22, understands who she is, what she is doing and why.

It’s elemental.

Mikaela Shiffrin is who she is because she loves it, and passionately.

She loves every bit of it. She can take that passion and distill it into a killer work ethic and uncompromising want-to.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you forge the sort of great champion who, come Winter Games-time, makes for must-see TV.

Unlike the schedule at most Winter Olympics, at Sochi in 2014, for instance, when the so-called technical events ran near the back end of the 17 days, in Pyeongchang next February, guess what goes off on Day 2? Women’s giant slalom. Day 4? Women’s slalom.

Why? This missive from the Department of the Obvious: Mikaela Shiffrin.

Here is the thing that separates someone like Shiffrin from the rest of almost everyone else on skis.

For her, the racing is the fun part. For real. In the start gate, the mission is not just to see if she can be good but to see how good she can be.

Nervous? Like, why?

Why be nervous, why have a thought bubble full of anxious reminders cluttering your mind, when you have done everything you can possibly do to put yourself in the best position you can be?

For Mikaela Shiffrin, there are no shortcuts. She loves the training, the hours upon hours in the gym, the repetitions in the weight room and on the icy snow, the attention to detail, all the stuff that doesn’t get reflected in the photo snaps, what our 24/7 what-now culture demands, the pics that flash across the globe in milliseconds of a winning smile and a fancy crystal globe.

“I am always at my best,” she said, calmly, evenly, “when I get good preparation and I feel strong.”

That simple, that elemental, and Mikaela Shiffrin’s 2017 overall win marks an intriguing moment if, like most Americans, you are just checking in on what’s what in alpine skiing.

Alpine racing is, generally speaking, divided into two kinds — the technical events and the speed races.

When most casual fans think alpine, they think speed, something like Robert Redford in “Downhill Racer,” which goes all the way back to 1969. (Warren Miller's love sonnets on film to the sport do not count for the casual fan.)

Making this easy:

The speed events are the downhill and the super-G.

Downhill: spitballing it here, you see how fast you can get down the mountain. There are gates, but whatever— the main thing is the speed, like 80 miles per hour, which is a lot on a freeway in a car made significantly of metal and other durable parts, much less on skis chattering down a river of ice. A world-class course runs to two minutes. Try to imagine it: ice (it's ice, not fluffy snow), 80 mph, two minutes, skis, yikes.

Super-G, same general idea but some widely set gates and the course is set lower down the mountain, meaning it's shorter.

The tech events, on the other hand, are the twisty, turning ones, the ones with all the gates close together.

Making this easy, again:

Per someone clever, those tech events, the giant slalom and slalom, will be coming to your living room early in the 2018 Olympic run.

A fifth alpine event, the combined, is just what it sounds like, one speed event and one tech, say a super-G and a slalom. You add the times of those two races together, lowest total wins.

On the men’s side, an Austrian racer, Marcel Hirscher, has won the World Cup overall title six seasons running — 2012 through 2017.

Hirscher is a tech specialist, the king of slalom and in the 2015 and 2017 seasons, giant slalom, too.

Compare that to the American standout Bode Miller, a five-event skier who won the overall title in 2005 and 2008.

Shiffrin is a tech specialist, too. She is the Sochi 2014 slalom gold medalist. She is the World Cup slalom winner for the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 seasons. (She spent two months away from racing during the 2016 season after a fall.)

Compare that to Vonn, the German Maria Höfl-Riesch (2011 overall winner), the Slovenian Tina Maze (Sochi 2014 downhill and giant slalom champ, showing her versatility, and 2013 World Cup overall winner with an otherworldly 2,414 points, breaking the legendary Austrian hammer Hermann Maier’s record of 2,000, set in 2000).

All three of these women: four- or five-event racers.

Would Shiffrin this season have been competing in more speed events if the Swiss racer Lara Gut, the 2016 overall champ, had not, in a Feb. 10 warm-up at the world championships, torn an ACL?

If, similarly, the Austrian Anna Veith was not coming back from injury? Before she got married, she was Anna Fenninger — the name by which she won Olympic gold in 2014 in the super-G and, moreover, won the big globe in 2015 and 2014.

Heading into the weekend’s racing in Aspen, Shiffrin stood at 1,523 points. No matter what happens, she can’t come within a canyon of Maze’s 2,414. Does that matter, even a little? Gut had 1,522 in winning last season. Shiffrin already is better. Again, does that matter, even remotely?

Questions without answers and, anyway, it’s not as if Shiffrin can’t ski speed.

Shiffrin did, after all, win a combined this season, in late February, in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and it’s for sure the case that as she goes and grows, all involved expect Shiffrin will do more speed.

A comparison: when Michael Phelps was a much younger swimmer, his coach, Bob Bowman, would allow him only to swim distance. As he grew into his ability, Bowman saw to it that Phelps broadened his repertoire.

Same general idea with Shiffrin.

The thing is, she and her team have a plan, and what Shiffrin and her team do, and exceedingly well, is develop and execute that plan.

As Julia Mancuso, the American skier who is herself a four-time Olympic medalist, including a gold from the Torino 2006 Games, said, “If it isn’t broke, why fix it? That’s their mindset.”

Mancuso added, “It takes a lot of strength to not deviate from that plan as well.”

Ski racing is full of numbers — so many it can become numbing — but just consider a handful.

Before this weekend’s races, Shiffrin had stood in the start gate 103 times. She had produced 31 wins and 43 podiums.

As Patrick Riml, the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director, put it, “Her strike rate is unbelievable.”

It is often said that hitting a major-league curve ball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Those who say that have never stood in the start gate of a World Cup course and looked at the gates and the ice. Shiffrin’s win rate would make her, in baseball terms, an All-Star, a .300 hitter. Her podium rate puts her in Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams category.

Long-range: Vonn has 77 World Cup victories. Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark has the most, 86.

“Kudos to [parents] Jeff and Eileen for teaching Mikaela what it takes,” Riml said.

“Look,” he said, “everyone who skis the World Cup has talent. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.

“Who wants it? Who wants it bad enough? Who wants it bad enough on race day?

“You can see it,” he said, “from the start gate,” and indeed you can.

Mikaela Shiffrin wants it. And she is feeling every bit of 22.

How to view 28 medals

There are lots of ways to look at the performance of the U.S. team at the just-concluded Sochi 2014 Winter Games. The American team won 28 medals, nine gold.

The optimist says that’s great.

Life is imperfect, for sure // photo Getty Images

The realist says the U.S. not only could have done better but almost surely should have. The International Olympic Committee added 12 new events to the 2014 program, mostly in the so-called action sports, and in those 12 Americans won nine medals. So — what happened around so much of the rest of the team?

Starting with the optimist’s view:

Sochi marked the best U.S. performance at a non-North American Winter Games. Those 28 medals were second only to the host Russians, who won the overall count with 33. Nine tied the mark set in Vancouver four years ago for most-ever gold medals at a non-domestic Games. The U.S. team won 10 in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Mikaela Shiffrin, just 18, won the first gold medal in women’s slalom skiing in 42 years. Ted Ligety won the men’s giant slalom under extraordinary pressure.

The two-man bobsled team, Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton, won the first medal of any color — in this instance, bronze — in 62 years. Holcomb would later drive the four-man sled to another bronze.

Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper swept the Olympic debut of slopestyle skiing. That marked only the third time U.S. men have swept the podium at the Winter Games. The prior occasions: figure skating 1956, snowboard halfpipe 2002.

Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, declared last Saturday at a news conference at the Sochi 2014 main press center that, overall, the American team had done a “fantastic job.”

The realist’s extrapolation:

Starting from the exact same place: 28 medals, nine golds, and comparing that with Vancouver: 37 medals, nine golds.

Should going to Russia instead of just across the border to Canada make so much difference?

If before the Games Americans would have been a known lock for nine medals in the 12 new events, experts in some circles would not have found it unreasonable to have predicted 40 medals overall for Team USA.

How, then, to appropriately assess 28?

The entire U.S. Olympic Winter team did not win as many medals as the U.S. track and field team did in London in 2012. The track team won 29.

For that matter, the U.S. 2012 swim team won 31.

Overall, there were 98 medal events at the Sochi Games. One potentially very useful metric is how many medal opportunities there were — that is, available spots for Americans to earn a medal.

It’s not a simple case of multiplying 98 times three (the number of medals per event). In some events there might only be one American available to earn a medal; in others, several.

Bottom-line: there were, by the end of the Games, 255 medal opportunities. Again, American athletes earned 28 medals. That’s a return rate of 10.98 percent.

Perhaps this, then, might offer the best measure of the 2014 U.S. team’s performance: is a return rate of 10.98 percent good, or can it — or better yet, ought to be — improved upon?

For comparison, the London track team’s return rate: 29 of 143, or 20.3 percent.

The gold standard is the 2012 U.S. swim team: 31 of 62, or 50 percent.

Of the nine gold medals, five came from new events; four from events that had been on the program before 2014.

As pointed out by Law Murray, a graduate student at the Annenberg journalism school at the University of Southern California who was a credentialed reporter at the Games, all nine of the gold medalists are under age 30.

Much of the pre-Games media attention focused on veterans such as snowboarder Shaun White and speedskater Shani Davis. Neither medaled. As Murray also noted, of the 20 individual medalists, 14 won medals for the first time in Sochi. Only the 20 new medalists from the 2002 Salt Lake Games exceeded that number.

The USOC looks at all these kinds of things, and more. It has two fundamental priorities. One, win medals. Two, inspire the American public. The inspiring depends on the medals. This is the mission. And the mission, so it’s clearly understood, can involve some serious money.

Strictly speaking, the USOC does not, in the manner of a traditional American business, seek ROI, or return on investment. But — when you are laying out $2,724,345 to US Speedskating, as the USOC did in 2012, the year for which disbursements are most recently available, according to the USOC’s tax returns, and the long-track team goes oh-for-Sochi, it’s reasonable to launch a far-reaching inquiry.

As first pointed out by Gary D’Amato of the Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, the U.S. long-track team’s medal count since 2002 has gone like this: eight, seven, four, zero. That belies an institutional problem that, finally, exploded into the public domain in 2014.

USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said last Saturday, “If you look at the speedskating results, we weren’t the only nation that got smoked,” the Dutch taking a torch to the rest of the world.

Echoed Ashley: “Our job now is to say, ‘What went wrong, what went right and how do we improve?’ “

Another program that figures to invite scrutiny: the figure skaters won a bronze in the new team event, true, but left Sochi without a medal in men’s or ladies’ singles for the first time since 1936. That is, in a word, unacceptable.

The USOC, according to its tax statements, gave the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. $842,486 in 2012; $866,966 in 2011; $1,023,025 in 2010.

The United States produced the men’s gold medalist in 2010, the women’s silver medalist in 2006 and gold medalist in 2002. Now?

The last U.S. woman to medal at an Olympics or world championships — in an Olympic year, the worlds come after a Games — is Kimmie Meissner, who won the world championship in 2006.

Since 2010, no U.S. man has finished higher than seventh at the Olympics or the worlds.

Figure skating’s scoring system is opaque, surely. But last Thursday, on a night when Americans Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner were talked up big-time by many of figure skating’s most traditional U.S. supporters — Gold would ultimately would finish fourth, Wagner seventh — the TV ratings underscored the challenge:

The ladies’ free skate, traditionally a highlight of the Games, attracted 20.3 million viewers, as Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova won gold over South Korea’s Yuna Kim amid controversy. The comparable night in Torino, when American Sasha Cohen won silver, drew 25.7 million. That is 5.4 million fewer people, a drop of 21 percent.

The U.S. men’s hockey team came to Sochi proclaiming “gold or bust,” beat the Russians in one of the Games’ most dramatic moments and then, in a 5-0 bronze-medal loss to Finland, proved they really meant it — it really was gold or time to go into the tank. “We didn’t show up. We let our country down. That’s it,” forward Max Pacioretty was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.

There were high hopes this might be the breakthrough year for both cross-country skiing (no medals since 1976) and biathlon (no medals, ever). Didn’t happen.

It’s easy to see how the U.S. team could have more than made up the medals it won four years ago:

Lindsey Vonn did not ski in Sochi because she was hurt. In 2010, she won two.

The Nordic combined team, altogether, won four in 2010. In Sochi, zero.

The long-track team, in Vancouver, four. In Sochi, zero.

Add those together and you get 10. Add 10 to 28 and 38 is almost the 40 that figured to come with the new additions to the program.

Of course, sports — particularly at the Olympics — can often prove a matter of woulda, coulda, shoulda.

For every medal the United States didn’t win, there’s one it surprisingly did — such as Andrew Weibrecht’s silver in the super-G, a reprise of his 2010 bronze in the same event.

Some would suggest that the move to 28 from 37 is also tied to the increasing globalization of the Winter Games. In the men’s snowboard halfpipe, for instance, traditionally the province of White and other Americans, no U.S. man medaled; two Japanese and a Swiss rocked the podium.

Then again, in Vancouver, 26 national Olympic committees won medals. In Sochi, exactly the same number, 26 NOCs, won medals.

“Things don’t always shake out the way you want to,” Ashley, ever diplomatic, said last Saturday. “The surprises are sometimes way more exciting than the disappointments.”

 

U.S. alpine: five is plenty fine

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There were a couple hours Saturday evening when it seemed possible the U.S. alpine ski team — already with a performance here at the Sochi 2014 Olympics that history will judge as fine, indeed— might, just might, sneak away with what would amount to a bonus medal. After Run 1 of the men’s slalom, Ted Ligety, winner three days ago of the giant slalom, had put himself in position for a medal. He was only 11-hundredths back of third.

The U.S. alpine team went into Saturday night with five medals, tied for its second-best performance ever at a Winter Games, with the Sarajevo 1984 team. Only the Vancouver 2010 team, which racked up eight, had done better.

Ted Ligety, left, and Germany's Felix Neureuther after crashing out in Run 2 of the slalom // photo Getty Images

Tantalizingly, six suddenly seemed within reach. Because he already had the GS gold, Ligety was skiing the slalom with no expectation, no pressure. The buzz started building — remember those two killer slalom runs Ligety put down to win his first Olympic gold, the combined, in Torino in 2006?

And then came the buzzkill.

For the rest of this post, please click through to NBCOlympics.com: nbco.ly/1fIwLGB

Shiffrin's 'sure as heck' gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The first Olympics he went to, in his very first race, 15-year-old Michael Phelps took fifth place. He got right back in the pool and, soon enough, he set his first world record. In his next Olympic race — which, because of the calendar, had to wait four years — he won gold. In her first Olympic race, the women’s giant slalom here Tuesday, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin took fifth. She said, “I think this is supposed to happen,” adding, “The next Olympics I go to, I sure as heck am not getting fifth.”

Women's slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin // photo courtesy Tom Kelly and U.S. Ski Team

There are moments, even at the Olympics, that are genuinely special. These moments make memories that last through the years. They also make cross-over stars, the ones who can make it big outside the confines of a niche like alpine skiing.

Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t have to wait four full years. She sure as heck gave it the full Friday Night Lights treatment here at Rosa Khutor, throwing down two incredible — and very different — runs to win gold in the women’s slalom.

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Ted Ligety's 'awesome' GS gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis. Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

Ted Ligety in victory after the giant slalom // photo Getty Images

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ted Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

It was, in a word, awesome.

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