PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The moment her daughter burst through the start gate at the top of the giant slalom course at Yongpyong Alpine Centre, Eileen Shiffrin’s lips started to move. Everything else on her body was still. Her fingers were interlocked, pushed up against her forehead, elbows splayed to the side. Her red ski boots dug into the snow. Her eyes, behind dark-tinted sunglasses, fixed on the giant screen that showed her daughter, Mikaela, weaving through 49 turns. Just her lips fluttered, almost imperceptibly, so subtle it was impossible to perceive the words.
“I was saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee,’” Eileen said in the aftermath of Shiffrin’s rousing Olympic gold-medal run, the second of her career and first in the GS. Eileen is Shiffrin’s mom, her confidant and her coach, an amalgamation that turns every race into a time for prayer.
And while she wasn’t supplicating for her daughter to win – “I’m just praying that she’s OK,” Eileen said, “or that she doesn’t get hurt, or that she can ski well so she’s happy because she’s worked really hard to do this” – the results nevertheless edified her. Mikaela Shiffrin, the greatest female ski racer in the world, came to the PyeongChang Games to do historic things. And following three days of wind-related delays, she slayed a race that has vexed her for years.
How Shiffrin beat the GS, and the talented field that also endeavored Thursday to conquer it, speaks to her ascent toward the top of all-time lists as a 22-year-old. Her dominance in slalom is Brobdingnagian, and anything but gold Friday (Thursday night in the U.S.) would be a disappointment. Her focus on speed events gives her hope in the downhill and combined, which marries slalom and downhill. Four medals are certainly possible. Four golds are not entirely out of question. And even as she scratched the Super-G from her schedule Thursday, owing to the demands of the other races, Shiffrin’s first gold puts her in position to be the standout American athlete of these Winter Olympics.
It was easy to appreciate why she dropped to her knees when she realized she had won. What Shiffrin deemed a “love-hate relationship” with the GS spans years. She loves the race even as it has hated her. To see her during the first run tested Eileen’s will and sent her repeating the same 42 words. “It’s my mantra,” Eileen said. “It’s what I say. People have their things. It’s what I do with my brain when I don’t know what to do and I’m nervous.”
Turns out there was no good reason for nerves. Shiffrin’s turns were tight, her intent obvious, her form true. Only one racer finished the first run ahead of her 1:10.82. In between runs, Shiffrin napped for about an hour, did some freeskiing on the men’s course adjacent to the women’s and kept an eye on her rivals, who knew with Shiffrin racing second to last they needed to make up significant time.
“I was watching all these girls go down on the second run and attacking,” Shiffrin said. “Everybody wants gold. Everybody’s skiing to win. It kind of left me no choice but to do the same thing.”
A committed and adrenalized Shiffrin is a sight to behold. In past GS races, she said, she would head into the second run with a podium finish in sight and ease up, protective, fearful. She felt no such compunction Thursday.
“The Olympics,” Shiffrin said, “is not about protecting the lead. It’s about putting your best on the line. You see what happens. … I was feeling the hill. I was feeling the mountain and feeling my skis. I was really letting it go as much as I could in