Can Mikaela Shiffrin Bounce Back Like Bode Miller?

Twenty years ago, as a 6-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin sat in her Colorado home watching the 2002 Winter Olympics, she saw Bode Miller fall onto his left hip while rounding a gate in an Alpine racecourse. Miller, a wild child who stumbled often, popped back up and finished second, winning the first of his six career Olympic medals.

Shiffrin was so inspired by Miller’s resilience that she stood in the living room and announced to her family that she wanted to be like her new idol and become a top Olympic ski racer. “The best in the world,” she said.

Metaphorically at least, Shiffrin is now in the same position as Miller was — on her hip in the snow and needing to get up.

Except, unlike the mercurial Miller, she is a disciplined, orderly skier who almost never falls, with a career built on consistent meticulous precision. When she toppled onto her left side on Monday in the women’s giant slalom and skidded out of the competition, it was just the 14th time in the previous 229 Olympic, World Cup and world championship races that she had not finished.

Her gaffe at the Beijing Games was like watching a 94 percent free throw shooter clang one off the back rim. And as she skied to the edge of the course and lifted her goggles, you could see the shock in Shiffrin’s eyes. Because she knows that in the Olympics, unlike in most basketball games, you don’t get many extra shots to make up for a mistake.

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Fortunately for Shiffrin, her best event, the slalom, will be contested Wednesday morning (Tuesday night in the United States). Moreover, it was evident after Monday’s disappointment that Shiffrin is no longer the wide-eyed 18-year-old who at the 2014 Sochi Games became the youngest Olympic slalom champion. Shiffrin, who debuted on the World Cup tour 11 years ago, is now at midcareer (she turns 27 next month) and in recent seasons has had to resurrect herself from injury, performances below her standards and much worse. Last week was the two-year anniversary of the accidental death of Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, who led his only daughter down a slope during her first day on skis and never stopped guiding her.

Difficult comebacks, not just medal ceremonies and cheering crowds, have become a regular part of Shiffrin’s life. And she knows that well. Just ask her.

Tellingly, Shiffrin did not seem confused, anxious or overly downtrodden after Monday’s swift failure, when she went down seconds into a race she was one of the favorites to win. She did not second guess herself, which she did when she surprisingly finished off the podium in the slalom at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. She did not blame a new racecourse in China that no one had competed on before Monday, nor did she cite the atypical snow conditions (100 percent artificial snow).

The racer who almost never falls just fell at the worst time.

“People are going to say, what went wrong?” she said in the finish area. “But the easier thing to say is I skied a couple good turns and I skied one turn a bit wrong and I paid the hardest consequence for that.

“I’m not going to cry about this. My chance is to move forward and to refocus and I’m in a good place to do that. I know my skiing is good.”

Then, Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic champion, left for a few hours of slalom training, taking advantage of extra practice time she did not expect to get in China.

Nothing Shiffrin said or did Monday will guarantee she’ll rebound in Wednesday’s slalom, even though Shiffrin has won more World Cup slalom races (47) than any skier, male or female, in history. All elite racecourses are steep and slippery; the combination ensures capricious outcomes.

But Shiffrin has more than one chance at the Beijing Olympics to put her disappointing giant slalom result in the rearview mirror. She will be the prohibitive favorite in the Alpine combined, which features one run of downhill and one run of slalom and plays to her unmatched versatility. She will be a solid medal contender in Friday’s super-G since she has two third-place finishes in the discipline this season and won the super-G bronze medal at last year’s world championships. She still plans to race next week in the downhill, although that is not a certainty since she missed considerable downhill training because of a back injury in October and a 10-day quarantine after a positive coronavirus test last month.

That still amounts to three more reasonably good opportunities to win her fourth Olympic Alpine medal, which would tie her with Julia Mancuso for the most Alpine medals by an American woman.

It is worth noting that Miller not only got off the snow to win his first Olympic medal 20 years ago, he rallied from disastrous performances at the 2006 Winter Games to win three medals four years later at the Vancouver Olympics. For Shiffrin, channeling the path and mind-set of her idol may indeed be the best advice right now.

In 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Miller was asked how he bounced back up when his hip was dragging in the snow. A silver medal around his neck, Miller rubbed the top of his head with his right hand and shrugged. He laughed.

“I don’t know,” he finally answered, “isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? You get up and keep racing, right?”

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