KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin knew what to do after the first run of the giant slalom left the teen skiing sensation in fifth place.
“Ski faster,” she said.
Shiffrin did just that, slicing through the rain and snow to trim some off her first run time in the first Olympic race of her young life. But her stay near the top of the leaderboard was brief, and she was soon eliminated from medal contention.
Her goal was gold. But under difficult conditions the 18-year-old gained some valuable experience that could pay off when she goes off as the favorite Friday in the slalom.
“I wanted a gold, but I also think this was meant to happen,” she said. “It’s something I will learn from the next Olympics I go to I’m sure.”
The closest thing to a replacement for the U.S. in the Olympics for the injured Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin had a chance to boost the flagging hopes of the country’s ski team by snatching a medal in her Olympic debut. It wasn’t to be, though, with Tina Maze of Slovenia earning her second gold medal of the Sochi Games and two other veteran gold medal winners in Anna Fenninger and Viktoria Rebensburg taking the silver and bronze.
“It’s amazing to be at my first Olympics and have that first race out of the way,” said Shiffrin, who finished fifth. “That was also a very cool race to be a part of, especially with the top three girls, they really raced well.”
Shiffrin raced well herself, bettering her time in the second run as snow alternated with rain. But a couple of mistakes on turns cost her valuable tenths of a second in the middle of the second run and she couldn’t make them up.
Shiffrin was in second place as she crossed the finish line, but there were four other skiers with first run times better than her who were yet to ski. It became a numbers game that Shiffrin quickly lost.
“I tried to race from the very start to the very finish,” she said. “I think it was a pretty fair race and I’m just really in awe of the top three girls.”
Shiffrin, who first raced in the World Cup at the age of 15 and is the reigning slalom champion, is still an overwhelming favorite to win a gold medal on Friday. She had never won a World Cup giant slalom, though she has been on the podium twice in the race on the World Cup circuit this year and was given an outside chance at picking up a medal in this race.
Shiffrin said she believes she wasn’t going to win her first World Cup slalom race until she was ready, and feels the same way about the giant slalom. Her time will come in the race, she said, but this wasn’t it.
“I was really thinking my first giant slalom win would be at the Olympics and that would be really cool to accomplish,” she said. “It’s just something I accept. I got fifth today and there are four girls that did better than me and I’m really excited to analyze their skiing and try to analyze mine.”
Her father, Jeff, said the difficult conditions were better handled on this day by veteran skiers who have more experience with them.
“I thought she did awesome,” he said. “This is not what she’s prepped for. I think it takes tons of experience to really kill this and she skied really well. I’m really happy for her.”
Jeff Shiffrin said not winning a medal might actually benefit his daughter because she won’t face as much media pressure.
“I like to look at the silver lining so this sets her up great for the slalom,” he said. “She won’t have to deal with these distractions (media) the next 48 hours.”
Maze agreed, saying Shiffrin faced a lot of pressure with Vonn missing from a U.S. team that has so far underperformed in Russia. The U.S. has yet to win a gold medal in skiing in these games.
“It must be hard. Now she’s done GS and will probably be more relaxed for slalom,” Maze said. “I think she’s a great athlete. She has a great team around her. They are working really good. For that age, she’s great, amazing.”