SHE DIDN'T stop, even when the race was over. Mikaela Shiffrin reached the corral at the bottom of the Olympic slalom hill last Friday night in the Caucasus Mountains north of Sochi, and she didn't slam her skis sideways into a hockey stop, she didn't send snow flying into the air and she didn't fall to her knees in supplication. The video board froze a giant green No. 1, confirming that Shiffrin, 18, had won the gold medal to become the youngest Alpine medalist in U.S. history and the youngest-ever winner—male or female—of any Olympic slalom. And in response to this historic moment, she let her red-and-white Atomic skis glide a slow, wide arc around the finish area as if she were drifting in a dream.
Which, in a sense, she was. "I mostly didn't want to stop," Shiffrin said a day after the race. "I wanted to keep skiing around the finish area. I just wanted to keep my skis moving. It felt so good to be free." Free of the presumption of greatness that has followed her for nearly a decade. Free of skiing just her second Olympic race as a solid favorite over women she had idolized as an adolescent. Free of the emotions that grabbed her, even as she rode the chair lift to the top of the hill for the second of two slalom runs, leading by half a second, a gold medal within her grasp but still painfully distant in a fickle event. "I was tearing up," said Shiffrin. "I was thinking, This actually might happen." She didn't stop at the finish because, metaphorically, she's just getting started.
Shiffrin's victory in the slalom completed a strong second half of the Games for U.S. Alpine racers. After winning just one medal in the first five events of the Games (Julia Mancuso's unexpected bronze in the super combined, boosting her U.S. women's record medal total to four), the U.S. won four medals in the final five events, beginning with a silver and a bronze by Andrew Weibrecht and Bode Miller, respectively, in the Super-G, followed by Ted Ligety's dominant gold as the heavy favorite in the giant slalom and, finally, Shiffrin's gold. The five medals (matching the number won in Sarajevo in 1984) are second only to the aberrational eight medals that U.S. racers won four years ago in Vancouver.
There was something more behind the numbers, the scent of generational change in the mountain air. This shift is not something that will happen overnight, and perhaps not even fully by the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But Miller (six), Mancuso (four), Ligety (two, both gold) and the injured Lindsey Vonn (two) have together won 14 medals since the start of the '02 Olympics and are all among the most accomplished U.S. racers in history.
They are also, to varying degrees, nearing the ends of their careers. Miller is 36, and while he told Stephen Colbert last week—perhaps jokingly, but with Miller it's never certain—that he would like to ski in South Korea, it seems wildly unlikely on his dodgy left knee; he was the second-oldest contending racer in Sochi. Vonn is rehabbing her right ACL for the second time in a year but has repeatedly tweeted her desire to ski another Games. Mancuso did the same, but after winning bronze in her first race in Sochi, she skied tentatively and at one point said, "I started wanting to ski well, not necessarily wanting to win."
Vonn has 59 World Cup wins, the second most of any woman in history; Mancuso has those four medals across three Olympic Games. But both will be 33 years old in 2018, and no woman has ever won an Olympic skiing medal at that age. (Marlies Schild of Austria, the silver medalist behind Shiffrin, turns 33 in May.) It's not out of the question that Vonn and Mancuso will race in Pyeongchang, and athletes of both genders use improved training and enhanced financial support to extend careers, but to presume that they will both be there and contend for medals requires a leap of faith. Four years is a long time. (Multiple career gold medalists Maria Hoefl-Riesch, 29, of Germany, and Tina Maze, 30, of Slovenia, have both said they do not expect to compete in South Korea.)
Ligety, who's 29, could be there. Unlike Mancuso, he has been dominant during the regular season, owning the giant slalom. Unlike Vonn, he hasn't been seriously hurt in five years. "I definitely plan on skiing through Korea," Ligety said after winning the Sochi GS gold by dominating the first run and protecting his lead in the second. "I feel like I have a lot of good years left. The World Cup overall title [for most points scored in all five racing disciplines in a single year] is a goal. I would be more proud of that accomplishment than winning this gold medal in giant slalom."
But in the craggy Russian mountains last weekend, it was Shiffrin who announced that she is the future. Perhaps one day ski-racing historians will talk about the remarkable overlap Games of 2014, when both Miller and Shiffrin, half his age, stood on the medal stand. But more likely that will be a footnote to the start of Shiffrin's Olympic career, which, barring major injuries (as much an issue with ski racers as with football players; Vonn has been either out or compromised by injury in two of her three prime Olympic Games), could produce medal records that will last decades.
Shiffrin's performance in the slalom—three days after a hard-earned but disappointing fifth in a rainy giant slalom—was breathtaking. She had won eight World Cup slalom races in 14 months, more than any other racer, and she skied with graceful professionalism on her first run to take a .49 of a second lead over defending gold medalist Hoefl-Riesch. When she pushed out as the last contending racer on the second run, she led Schild, whose videos she had studied while a high school student at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, by 1.34 seconds. Less than half a minute into the run she nearly went off the course; her left ski lost its edge and flew into the air, forcing her to turn on her inside ski, a daunting move. But also one that she had learned while doing the so-called Norwegian Drill at Burke. "She did that drill innumerable times," said Kirk Dwyer, her coach and headmaster at Burke, in a text message. "Making the initiation of the turn on the inside ski. She also trained to see mistakes as opportunities."
Shiffrin won by more than half a second. In the finish area her agent, former Austrian racer Kilian Albrecht, fought back tears. "What she did today," said Albrecht, "she had so much pressure. She took her heart in her hands and brought it down."
A day later Shiffrin laid down a sizable challenge to the rest of the women's racing world. "Right now I'm dreaming of the next Olympics and winning five gold medals," she said. And she then added, remarkably, "When I'm done, I hope that I can look back and say that I changed the sport, that I pushed women's ski racing to be faster and more athletic." This sentence would most likely grate on Vonn, who has done exactly that. But Shiffrin defers to no one in a competitive sense.
Winning five gold medals in 2018—or at any later Olympics—would involve adding the high-speed downhill and Super-G to her schedule. U.S. coaches said that will happen, but only gradually. "The next goal is for [Shiffrin] to be on the same level in giant slalom as slalom," said U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml. "Next we will add a little Super-G, some super combined where the slalom is combined with a Super-G. You've got to be patient. We know her potential."
Yet now it is more than potential; it is a reality awaiting more. No stopping now.
AFTER WINNING JUST ONE MEDAL IN THE FIRST FIVE ALPINE EVENTS, THE U.S. WON FOUR IN THE FINAL FIVE, INCLUDING LIGETY'S DOMINANT GOLD.
MADDIE BOWMAN AND DAVID WISE
Bowman (below right), a 20-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Wise, 23, from Reno, won the inaugural Olympic halfpipe skiing titles. All told, the U.S. won 16 of its 28 medals in events added to the Winter Olympics since 1998.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAIN Not even a bad head cold could slow Shiffrin, a prodigy who earned the U.S.'s first gold medal in the women's slalom since 1972.
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JED JACOBSOHN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GIANT SLAYER Ligety, the heavy favorite, prevailed by nearly half a second to atone for a ninth-place finish in Vancouver.