By Christopher Clarey
New York Times News Service
KRANJSKA GORA, Slovenia — At 18, skiing wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin already has proved that she has an uncommon ability to take on high-pressure situations and prevail.
Sunday in snowy Slovenia was not one of those occasions.
In her last race before her first Olympics, Shiffrin, the reigning world champion and current World Cup leader, was in range of another victory in slalom after winning the first run on a tough, weather-challenged course in Kranjska Gora.
But the second run — a Shiffrin specialty over the past two seasons, in all kinds of conditions — did not go as she had visualized.
Skiing last, the U.S. teenager pushed out of the start amid heavy snowfall and hit a deep rut before the first timing mark, pitching abruptly forward on her skis.
For those accustomed to her stability and upper-body control, it offered a rare glimpse of Shiffrin seeming off balance and rattled. She recovered quickly enough to avoid missing the next gate, but her mistake came on a flat part of the course, depriving her of speed in a place where it was devilishly difficult to gather it again.
“I’m always thinking when I go down the course,” Shiffrin said. “But there it was like, all of a sudden, your brain turns off and instincts take over and you try to make it down.”
Shiffrin pushed on, projecting urgency instead of her usual calm, and ended up in seventh place, 0.72 of a second behind the winner, Frida Hansdotter of Sweden.
“I know where my slalom skiing is, and I know I can do it any time, any day,” Shiffrin said. “And if there are runs with one little mistake, and I make it on a flat section and it cost me the race, then I’ll take it, knowing that I’ll learn from it next time.”
Next time will be in the mountains above Sochi, when Shiffrin will make her Olympic debut on Feb. 18 in the giant slalom and then follow up with the slalom on Feb. 21.
Despite Sunday’s struggles, she remains the slalom favorite with three victories in six races this season. It is quite a spot for a teenage skier in her first Olympics, but the consensus in Kranjska Gora is that Shiffrin is well suited to manage it with aplomb.
“I think if you’re skiing great and you’re relaxed and confident, it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or fourth Olympics,” said Jim Pollock, Canada’s head women’s technical coach.
“I think Mikaela can handle it. She’s handled a lot of pressure, like last year at the world championships, winning the title and then coming into this year with high expectations and other people’s expectations of her. She might have had one or two off-races but came back very strong. I think she’s the one to beat.”
Resi Stiegler, a 28-year-old American who just missed qualifying for Sunday’s second run, said that she was struck by Shiffrin’s maturity. Stiegler, who has had to come back from major injuries, said that not having the tough memories that accompany a long skiing career could also help Shiffrin.
“I think she doesn’t have that thing in the back of her head that especially older athletes have,” Stiegler said. “Just like this one race or this one type of condition where you blew out your knee or you lost the title at this one hill, and it’s so devastating. No matter what, unless you are like brilliant at forgetting the past, it’s hard to do. And I think it’s a huge reason why if you’ve never had a big loss or a huge upset, you can keep going and have this very fresh feeling. All your memories are only greatness, which is awesome. It’s a great thing to have.”
It may also help that Shiffrin will not get the full-blown Olympic experience in her debut. Though the long-range goal is for her to become a speed-event skier, as well, she remains a two-event skier for now.
That means while some of her Alpine teammates, like Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller, will be in Sochi from the start, she will train in Italy with other American technical specialists for much of the first week of the games and arrive in Russia long after the opening ceremony.
“It will be strange,” Shiffrin said. “We might be thinking, ‘Maybe we should get going.’ ”
Shiffrin already spent most of her time in the finish area on Sunday fielding Olympic questions. Security was an issue, and Shiffrin said she was confident that the competitors would be safe in Sochi.
“I think they’ve had time, enough time, four years’ worth of time to work out the kinks or even longer,” she said. “So it’s really just a matter of going in and focusing on the skiing and not letting that worry me.”
But the dominant theme was the p-word.
“I don’t really feel the pressure,” she said. “If anything I think it’s a great position to be in. I’d rather be in this position than not going. I like to know I have a chance at winning a medal.
“It’s definitely a big event and it’s very prestigious and there’s a lot going on. I would never want to underestimate the Olympics or take anything away from that but the race in and of itself is just another race. Whether it’s at the Olympics or the World Cup or wherever it is, it’s still start and finish and some gates in between.”
What defines Shiffrin in her competitors’ eyes is her ability to take such a direct line between those gates.
“She’s skiing more like a guy kind of line,” said Marie-Michele Gagnon of Canada.
The Swedes, who like most of Shiffrin’s competition have spent time analyzing her technique on video, have been struck by her ability to sustain speed and form until the finish.
“She has a light technique,” said Fredrik Steinwall, head coach of the Swedish women’s team. “She applies pressure on her skis, but she does it at exactly the right moment, and that means she maybe doesn’t get as tired as the other girls. She has really efficient technique, and she looks like she’s not using that much power or at least is not losing power and energy in the wrong places. It’s power all going in the right direction.”
But on this Sunday at least, it was the Swedes who got the power and energy equation just right, and after many a second-place finish (eight to be precise), Hansdotter finally won her first World Cup race with Marlies Schild of Austria in second and her much younger sister Bernadette in third.
“See you in Sochi,” Hansdotter said to the Schilds as she left the news conference.
Shiffrin will see them there, too.
“Sure, I’m excited,” she said. “For sure, it’s every child’s dream. Either they want to go to the Olympics or they want to be president, and I happen to be going to the Olympics.”