YANQING, China — Ever since Mikaela Shiffrin burst onto the international skiing scene a decade ago as a teenage phenom, her extraordinary balance has separated her from nearly all of her competitors.
As she whizzed around gates, winning some races by nearly three seconds and capturing two Olympic gold medals, Shiffrin always appeared perfectly settled on the steep, icy slopes where the best skiers in the world battle both one another and the mountain. She made a reckless and dangerous sport look like ballet. Even when she did not win, it was rarely because she had gotten so out of sorts that she skied off course and failed to cross the finish line.
For now, at the worst possible moment and for the second time in three days, that preternatural balance has disappeared. Shiffrin could not even pass through the first section of a race. A favorite at the start of Wednesday’s slalom, she was out after fewer than a half-dozen turns, a victim of some unknowable mix of Olympic pressure, expectations, and bad luck.
“I maybe felt how much I cared,” said Shiffrin, a tightly wound, deep thinker who has spent much of her career finding tools to help her relax in the biggest moments. She has tried everything from meditation, music and visualization to doing word searches to clear her mind in the mountaintop warming tents right before a race.
“My whole intention building up this whole season since the summer was to ski these races aggressively,” she said, fighting back tears repeatedly. “That is what I was doing. The problem is you have to finish, and that is my main issue right now apparently, and that has never been an issue my entire career.”
Indeed, before Wednesday, Shiffrin had skied out of just 14 of the 229 Olympic, World Cup and world championship races she has entered.
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Unsteady on her skis, with her arms and legs out of sync almost immediately after she pushed through the gate, Shiffrin nearly tumbled to the snow on her fourth turn and made it around just one more gate before skidding off the course, a sequence that was eerily similar to her performance in the giant slalom on Monday.
Her performance was the polar opposite of Shiffrin’s chief slalom rival, Petra Vhlova of Slovakia. After a shaky first run, Vhlova stormed back to take the gold medal, the first of her career, in 1 minute 44.98 seconds. Vhlova bested Katharina Liensberger of Austria by .08 seconds. Wendy Holdener of Switzerland won the bronze medal.
“Skiing free,” Vhlova said, describing her effort.
Shiffrin’s skiing has been anything but. She is an international celebrity, with millions of dollars in sponsorships, and one of the biggest stars on her country’s Olympic team, a weight that has felled other star athletes recently, including the Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka and the American gymnast Simone Biles.
After Wednesday, Shiffrin, 26, could barely commit to another race, as she faces the first real athletic crisis of what has been an extraordinary competitive career. She has won more slalom races than any other skier and is on track to break the Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 career World Cup victories.
Two years ago, though, trauma invaded Shiffrin’s life. Her father, Jeff, died suddenly in an accident at the family home in Colorado. Shiffrin and her mother, Eileen, who has also been one of her coaches and often travels with her, were in Europe competing at the time and hurried back to the United States. Shiffrin did not ski again for nine months and struggled to find the motivation to compete last season.
Jeff Shiffrin, an anesthesiologist and a competitive skier in college, had long served as a calming and irreverent presence for Shiffrin, one step removed from her harried life on the World Cup circuit.
Having gone through the trauma of losing him, Shiffrin knew that two terrible ski races were not the end of the world, but not being able to talk to her father in this moment brought its own kind of pain.
“Right now I would really like to call him,” she said. “He would probably tell me to just get over it, but he is not here to say that so on top of everything else I am pretty angry at him, too.”
This is the third Olympic Games for Shiffrin, and the expectations, self-imposed and external, have grown each time. In Sochi, Russia, in 2014, she was already the best slalom skier in the world but she was also the 18-year-old Olympic rookie, with a long career ahead of her.
Four years later in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she had begun to contend in the speed events. She tried, fruitlessly, to quiet chatter about her winning medals in every event. Ultimately, bad weather and a shifting schedule limited her racing, but she won the giant slalom, just missed the podium in slalom, then returned to win the silver in combined, which is one run of downhill and one run of slalom, offering a chance for her versatility to shine.
What she does next at these Games is anyone’s guess.
Though she has won a world championship in Super G and was set to train on the hill Thursday, the speed events are not her specialty. She took years to “learn to fly” — a term skiers use to describe the adjustment to high-speed, jump-infused speed events — and the treachery and danger of those races are not a natural fit with her personality. At this point, though, merely finishing a race could be seen as a triumph.
Paula Moltzan, Shiffrin’s teammate, who finished eighth Wednesday, said she was certain Shiffrin would soon be back “skiing stronger than ever and faster than ever.” Shiffrin texted Moltzan a note of support before her second run.
“It’s a brutal sport, with major injuries and major disappointments,” said Moltzan, who added that the tentative plan was for Shiffrin to ski in a team event with her at the end of the Games.
Part of what makes Shiffrin so appealing to so many is that she holds little back. Through her highs and her lows, she lets the world see her emotions and does not hide her fears and insecurities. Wednesday, at arguably the lowest moment of her career, was no different.
She questioned whether a teammate might be more deserving of a spot in the upcoming speed races. What’s the point if she can’t make it 50 yards down the mountain, she wondered?
She spoke of the expectations that always trail her onto the mountain, expectations that are now accompanied by the question of whether she can rediscover that magical balance and return to the podium, or at least cross the finish line.
“When there is pressure and there is some nerves and the feeling that I want to do well, I always just go back to that feeling and fundamental idea that good skiing will be there for me,” she said, unable to explain its absence at these Olympic Games.
Mostly she talked of how badly she had wanted to ski well, how disappointed she was, and how she felt as though she had let herself and everyone around her down after the complicated journey to China during a pandemic.
“They came all this way,” she said. “It really feels like a lot of work for nothing.”