SOCHI, Russia — Listening to Mikaela Shiffrin discuss ski racing is like hearing Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” or seeing “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh.
It’s a visceral experience.
Some aspects of it simply defy description. They can only be felt.
Like the 18-year-old American's description of how she felt once she realized she’d won the slalom gold medal Thursday night at the 2014 Olympics.
“I mostly just didn’t want to stop skiing,” she said. “I kept skiing around the finish area. I wanted to keep my skis moving as long as I could because it felt so good to ski down the mountain like that. ... I felt kind of free — free to make mistakes and free to recover from them.”
And, maybe the only thing more impressive than her ability to speed through gates is her ability to share those experiences and insights in a meaningful way with just about anyone.
The youngest American woman to ever win an Alpine gold medal, she seems more a philosopher studying the art of ski racing than a teenager trying to make a name for herself in a grueling and complicated sport.
Already the defending world champion, the self-described “Colorado girl” earned the first U.S. alpine gold since Phil Mahre in 1984. She’s only the sixth American and the youngest woman to medal in the event.
She embraces her abilities confidently and suggests that her next goal might be trying to win five Olympic gold medals.
“Did I admit that to all of you?” she said to laughter.
Shiffrin wasn’t apologetic — or arrogant — when she talked about her goal to win gold in Sochi. She said she had an epiphany while traveling to her first Olympic Games.
“Miracles aren’t random,” she said. “I’ve been told the Olympics is all about the process, all about the journey. And then I’ve been told, ‘Go for gold and nothing else.’ I don’t see why you can’t combine the two and use the journey to get the gold."
She said that when fans see unheralded or underappreciated athletes achieve success against the odds, they find hope for their own struggles.
“For the crowd, for the world watching, miracles give them hope that something like that could happen for themselves," she said. "And so my goal coming to the Olympics was to prove that miracles are not random, you’re in charge of your own destiny, you can really control that, I wanted to come here and create your own miracle.”
She wanted to prove that anyone is capable of miraculous moments — young or old; favorite or longshot; large country or small.
“I think the Olympics is really an inspiring event not just because the Americans win, but because anyone can win.”
Shiffrin is also unique in that she finds inspiration everywhere. What can a ski racer learn from a figure skater? Apparently a lot.
“I watched (Russian figure skater Adelina Sotnikova) the night before my race,” she said. “I saw she was able to flow more than anyone else, and inspired me to keep my skis moving. I really appreciated the beauty of her routine. ... Watching all the other sports, the other athletes, it’s inspired me.”
She values the process, the experience, but she’s also honest about her desire to win.
“Every time I put on skis, I’m always, always thinking about what I could do better,” she said. “I hope that by the time I’m done ski racing, hopefully I’ll have a long and great career of a lot of accomplishments, but also a lot of failure, because you learn more from failure than you do success. I hope I’ve changed the sport, that I was innovative, that I created a new way of skiing and pushed women’s ski racing to be faster, more athletic, and really put on a show.”
She made a mistake in her second slalom run that could have cost her the gold. And at first, she said she wished she hadn’t made that mistake.
“But that’s what makes ski racing exciting,” she said. “I do hope that I can inspire people to try and put on a show for themselves, for the crowd, and don’t be afraid to make the mistakes because you’ll learn from them.”
Just about the only time Shiffrin seems like she's a teen is when she talks about being grateful that she chose not to wear makeup for her gold medal race.
“It was either no mascara or waterproof mascara, because if I start crying. I do not want to look like a witch,” she said, smiling.
She thanked the media for laughing at her jokes and said “being funny” is one of the items on her long list of goals. And then she shifted into serious, almost magical talk about finding purpose in elite athletic competition.
Every moment of the experience teaches her, and then she passes on the lessons learned: Keep moving no matter what, don’t give up, and embrace mistakes because that may be the path that makes you a champion.
“When the time came last night, it wasn’t because I had to live up to something or because I had to win the gold,” she said. “I really wanted to ski fast. It’s been a pretty amazing ride.”
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