This morning, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest skier to win gold in the Olympic slalom. Ever. How? She took on a course with the kind of calm usually shown by athletes who have been on the race circuit for, well, as long as she's been alive.
Keeping nerves in line is a must in a sport where Olympic-level speeds start around 40mph—and where a millisecond's mistake can mean missing a medal (or crashing). And because of the über-high speeds, the steep terrain, and the ever-present risk of a career-ending crack-up, a downhill course requires a special sort of constitutional steeliness.
But it's in the discipline of slalom that turns are tightest and the gates are closest-set. With a second or less from one gate to the next, skiers have to be ridiculously quick on their feet. Plus, any slalom course set requires the skier to weave in round, regular turns with combinations (gates set in a vertical row). Those combinations suddenly change the rhythm from fast, round turns to a turn tempo that's half that. It's a little like dancing to a song that's constantly changing time signatures. Even though slalom speeds don't approach what they do in downhill, it's plenty easy to make a small mistake that quickly metastasizes into a big one. You could wind up straddling a gate (taking a gate in between the skis, an automatic disqualification), getting bounced out of the course, or, yes, falling. It's all but impossible to make an error-free slalom run.
Even more difficult? Making a mistake, recovering within the razor-sharp margin of time needed to get back on track—and not letting those nerves get jangled for even another millisecond.
That's why, in some ways, the most impressive thing a racer can do in a course isn't to avoid all errors. It's to make an error, and then come back from it—well enough to medal.
Lots of racers in today's slalom weren't quite able to stay so cool. That's not just because of the technical difficulty of the discipline; it was also because of the snow. Racers like their courses smooth, so much so that any high-level racer would prefer an ice-skating rink at each gate to anything lumpy or bumpy. Everything about soft snow, on the other hand, is slow. It's wetter. It's stickier. It gives way easier, meaning it's easy to skid. And yet, at the same time, if you dig your edge in too hard, the extra friction slows you down.
On top of all of that, soft snow also ruts up really quickly. And ruts are one of the trickiest obstacles for any racer. When you're talking about a series of elite racers, each will take a fairly similar line down a given course, meaning you'll be following, more or less, the track left by previous racers. But that's not always the case—especially in the case of a mistake (making a turn too late, for example, and having to traverse back across the hill, rather than keeping the skis pointed downhill), which can mean hitting those ruts head-on. It takes supreme balance, and strength to absorb those lumps and bumps and get back on track, both literally and figuratively.
Amazingly, that's exactly what Shiffrin did.
The course got to lots of her compatriots, most of whom had many more seasons on her. As one racer came down after another, you could see them "overskiing"—being too aggressive with the course, making turns too powerful, sledgehammering the snow instead of staying on top of it. Drive too hard, dig the edge in too deep, and it's harder to transition quickly into the next turn. In her second run, even Tina Maze, the Slovenian superstar who had placed third on the first run, came on too forcefully, finishing a full 1.85 seconds slower than the fastest time, good for a disappointing eighth.
Then there was Shiffrin. In her first run, she had come out of the gate relaxed, skiing with the beautiful, clean precision she's known for. She didn't let nerves throw her, or the snow. Without a single error, she came down in first spot, besting defending Olympic slalom champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.
On her second run, she seemed just as calm. (Although I can't speak to how she came out of the gate: Thanks, NBC live streaming, for throwing up an ad right at the start of her run!) It seemed like she'd clinched gold.
And then, about halfway through her run, she made an error. A change in the steepness of the pitch threw her; her turn went wide around a gate. Both her skis came off the ground.
With the next turn already on her, a lesser racer would have fallen, missed the gate, or skied out. (Many other racers on the same course did.) Instead, Mikaela fought for the correction. She didn't let it throw her, or ruffle her composure. She stayed so light and fast, she was back on track just a turn later.
The error cost her: She was 0.81 of a second slower than Austrian Marlies Schild, who'd had a stunning second run. But it didn't matter. With the combination of her two times, Shiffrin clinched gold.
I should be impressed by her practically perfect first run. But I can't help but be more impressed by the fact that—less than a year out of high school, in her very first Olympics, in the event where everyone expected her to contend, with all the pressure on—Shiffrin made what could have been a costly mistake … and then carried right on as if it hadn't even happened. Is she a smart, technical, precise skier? Yeah. But in her approach to coming back on the fly from a potentially crippling mistake, she also showed that she's a mature skier. And if that's where she is at 18, I can't wait to see where she is in a couple more seasons.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.