Krasnaya Polyana, Russia
In that stunning moment on the slopes, American skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin almost became like the U.S. Olympic women’s bobsled driver who hit the wall during the final run and the women’s hockey players who couldn’t hold a two-goal lead in the last four minutes of the gold medal game.
Shiffrin made the biggest save of the Games.
Fearing that she might ski off the course, she managed to redirect her left ski in the air, stop quickly, negotiate the slalom gate and finish a winning run Friday night. That’s a veteran move, for a skier who will turn 19 in three weeks.
Her recovery is the lasting image of Sochi 2014 for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s overall effort — at least, the organization hopes so. Any other outcome in that second slalom run would have altered the reviews of the U.S. performance, the outlook for 2018 in Korea, Shiffrin’s endorsement value and her USOC marketing potential.
Shriffin couldn’t help the USA prevent Russia from clinching the 2014 medals title, though. American-born snowboarder Vic Wild, who won two gold medals on behalf of Russia, delivered the swing vote. The host country leads 29-27, with only the U.S. four-man bobsled team having a medal opportunity Sunday.
Prior to being shut out Saturday, the Americans had won at least one medal for 14 straight days.
Medals are highly meaningful to the USOC, which produced an astounding 37 of them in 2010. The organization relies on sponsorships, and nothing markets itself like an Olympic medal — especially when a fresh face, mature outlook and confident personality accompany the gold.
That’s what Shiffrin brings. USOC administrators now have someone to showcase in the next four years and beyond.
She’s ambitious, that’s for sure. “I am dreaming of winning five gold medals [in 2018], which sounds really crazy,” she said in a news conference Saturday.
Shiffrin gives the USOC just the right balance as a young star in a traditional, broad-appeal sport, mixed with the emerging performers in extreme sports that attract a whole other audience. If not for Shiffrin’s gold medal, the U.S. performance in these Games would be skewed too much toward the new sports that still tend to make the medal count somewhat deceiving.
Because of her performance, the USOC can claim at least partial victories on both fronts. Administrators can credit the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association with flexibility and foresight in supporting and developing athletes in the new disciplines, helping them produce the most medals in any Winter Games outside of North America. They also can point to reasonable success in the old stuff — other than speedskating and figure skating, anyway.
With gold for Shiffrin and Park City’s Ted Ligety (giant slalom) and three other medals, the Alpine ski team pretty much did its part. Ligety labeled Shiffrin’s performance “super-impressive” and program director Patrick Riml was thrilled with her.
“It was incredible,” Riml said. “It’s unbelievable, going into that race as a favorite and she’s still 18 years old. To be able to go out there and charge … and even a little hiccup didn’t stop her. And just pushing all the way down to the finish was just very, very impressive.”
Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance, is a former skiing executive. He knows what this country has in Shiffrin, and he spoke Saturday about how “my heart leapt out of my chest” in response to her slalom run.
Ashley cited Shiffrin’s summer workouts at the USSA’s Center of Excellence in Park City as inspirational to young athletes in the program, and her performance will have other residual effects for the USOC.
During the USOC’s concluding news conference, CEO Scott Blackmun said of the overall U.S. showing, “I don’t think it was a step backward at all.”
That’s questionable, but he could thank Shiffrin’s save for enabling him to make such a statement.
Team USA’s medal counts for the Sochi, Vancouver, Turin and Salt Lake Winter Games:
Games Year Gold Silver Bronze Total
Sochi 2014 9 7 11 27*
Vancouver 2010 9 15 13 37
Turin 2006 9 9 7 25
Salt Lake 2002 10 13 11 34
*Does not include 4-man bobsled, which finishes Sunday