Yongpyong, South Korea • Mikaela Shiffrin had 15 seconds. That was her cap. Fifteen second to fall to the ground, wrap her arms around her knees, drop her head and let it hit her. There, on the snow at the base of the giant slalom run at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre, the Olympian with the highest of aspirations and expectations entering these Games in South Korea, just sat.
“My best effort,” she explained over an hour later, “is good enough. It was good enough today.”
It might sound surprising to hear that from the 22-year-old American alpine skier. No U.S. athlete faces as daunting of a task laid out in front of her, not only by her own doing but by the American press corps, which has built up this former teenage sensation to the heights of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White.
How many medals can Shiffrin win?
Can she make history in doing so?
Is this the Olympics that launches her into that seemingly untouchable stratosphere of generation talents?
The first of many answers that will be answered in successive days here was Shiffrin seated there on the snow for those 15 seconds. She’s here, she’s winning, the wind has died down, the course is perfect, her skis are purring and Day 1 of the women’s alpine events produced the gold medal followers eagerly awaited to see delivered upon.
Her gold in giant slalom appears to be the indicator of what is to come. The field saw Shiffrin more motivated than maybe ever before, this internal conversation with herself where she said she had to fight for this one. She put a lot of fight into her second run, the one that produced her second career Olympic gold medal.
How can an elite athlete reach that next level necessary when it matters most? Is there any actual explanation to it?
“That’s a $10 million question,” said Shiffrin’s coach, Mike Day. “Champions have that ability, and true champions are able to produce that whenever it’s needed. And today she did that.”
If her quest for multiple Olympic medals was kickstarted by this gold medal here high in the mountains above Pyeongchang, the world could be getting the show it has yearned for. She’s the near shoo-in favorite in Friday’s women’s slalom, so if she keeps on delivering, that means two in two days. That’d be some start, regardless of what she was supposed to achieve here.
“I don’t want to assume that anything else is going to happen,” she said. “Every single day is a new day. My only job here is to put out my best effort. Going into these Olympics, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could come away with multiple medals. I could come away with nothing.’”
Thursday morning was unusual for America’s megastar on skis.
It started with breakfast. Her stomach usually is so knotted with nerves before World Cup races that she doesn’t even dare attempt the first meal of the day. She did Thursday, it settled fine, she chilled and felt ready to go for it. The first run was OK, she said. Her second run, however, was the display of her dominance, this rare blend of power, speed and tantalizing rhythm around gate after gate.
“She didn’t show much nerves, did she?” Day said.
Shiffrin is locked in. She said in her post-race news conference that she’s weened herself off social media. It’s been two weeks since she tapped open Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. If she feels the need to share something, she’ll inform her agent of what she wants put out onto the Internet. She’s already in the mode long expected of her.
Shiffrin said she’s feeling one with the hill, one with the mountain.
This was a couple of hours after those 15 seconds when she picked herself up off the snow and let the first of potentially many similar moments slam into her.
“Now,” she said, “I’ve got to focus on tomorrow.”