PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Out of the start gate Friday morning, Mikaela Shiffrin knew immediately that something was wrong.
One of her strengths is an almost spiritual connection with the snow beneath her skis. Assessing slope and terrain, she has a developed sense for knowing when to attack, when to be wary, when to tip her skis on edge or when to lay them flat.
But not on Friday. About 14 hours after she had bowed her head as a gold medal was draped around her neck for her victory in the giant slalom, Shiffrin pushed out of the gate and later said she had felt oddly adrift.
“In that first run today, I had no feel,” Shiffrin said, not long after she failed to defend her title as the 2014 Olympic champion in the women’s slalom.
In a startling outcome, Shiffrin, the world’s top-ranked slalom skier for the last several seasons, finished the race in fourth place, 0.40 of a second behind the gold medal winner, Frida Hansdotter of Sweden.
Wendy Holdener of Switzerland won the silver medal, and Katharina Gallhuber of Austria was in third place, 0.08 of a second ahead of Shiffrin.
“I don’t really have an explanation,” said Shiffrin, who was trying to become the first Olympic slalom gold medalist, man or woman, to repeat as champion. “I beat myself in the first run. Today, I didn’t feel like I was up for the challenge. Actually, I did rise up to it, but when I was actually skiing the runs, that didn’t come out. And that’s a very big disappointment.
“It’s something that will stay with me for a while.”
Finishing fourth in an elite field at the Winter Olympics is far from a debacle, but for the usually consistent and dominant Shiffrin, it was a perplexing anomaly. She acknowledged that she had been out of sorts throughout the day, and was perhaps drained from a long, if exhilarating, gold medal experience the previous day.
A bout of nerves caused her to vomit before the first run Friday, in which she finished in fourth place and a surprising 0.48 of a second behind Holdener, the first-run leader. That kind of stomach distress was common for Shiffrin before races last season but not so much this winter. In a television interview between her runs Friday, she said she thought she might have a virus.
But later Friday, Shiffrin said she was not sick.
“Just nerves again,” she said with a smile.
After Thursday’s victory in the giant slalom, Shiffrin seemed to be on a course that might have led to three Alpine gold medals here, which would have tied an Olympic record. She was, for example, a prohibitive favorite in the slalom — she had won seven of nine World Cup slalom races this season — and she is the top contender for a gold medal in next week’s Alpine combined.
Friday’s result is likely to diminish the gold medal expectations by one, although Shiffrin is still expected to ski in a fourth event as well, the downhill on Wednesday — as long as she turns in one of the top training times on the American team next week, which is probable.
It is not the first time that Shiffrin has felt uncomfortable on the snow. In the first run of the slalom at the 2013 world championships in Austria, she said, she could not feel her legs while she was skiing.
But she rallied in the second run to win her first world championship title.
A second comeback on a big stage seemed like a reasonable expectation Friday. And Shiffrin skied considerably better and more aggressively in her second run, turning in the third best time of the field.
But it was not her usual stellar performance, especially because Shiffrin has often defeated her competitors by a second or more in each run.
“Instead of focusing on the good skiing that I know I can do, I was conservative,” Shiffrin said afterward. “I was almost trying to do something special, and I don’t need to do something special. I just need to ski like myself, and I’ll be fine.”
Shiffrin, renowned for needing at least nine hours of sleep a day, said she had gone to bed two hours after her usual bedtime Thursday because she had attended the medal ceremony for the giant slalom.
Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who is also one of her coaches, said she believed fatigue had contributed substantially to her daughter’s atypical skiing. She noted that because high winds had postponed three races, the Alpine schedule had been compressed. The original plan was for a day of rest between the giant slalom and the slalom.
“At the Olympics, there’s a reason why there’s a day off between the races,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “For the medal winners, that day is a long, stressful and exciting day, but it is exhausting. It took its toll on Mikaela.”
Mikaela would not say she was tired but said she thought the emotions of Thursday’s victory may have played a factor.
“I almost felt too much emotion yesterday,” she said. “People talk about avoiding peaks and valleys, and I had too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today. I need to keep that mental energy stable, and I didn’t really do that.
“Right now, I’m going to go back and evaluate the whole day with my whole team. They know me the best. We’ll all figure out what happened today and avoid that kind of thing in the future.”
For Hansdotter, who has competed in Shiffrin’s shadow for the last few years, it was a breakthrough victory and her first Olympic or world championship title. She won a silver in the world championship in 2015 and a bronze medal in 2013 and 2017.
“I’ve been skiing well and racing for a long time, and it’s a wonderful accomplishment to have this kind of victory,” Hansdotter, 32, said. “It will be always be a day to remember.”
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