Behind the Gold: The meaning of courage
December 8, 2017
The two girls seemed almost giddy — playing around for the photographers as they celebrated on the podium. German ski star Viki Rebensburg reached over the pulled Mikaela Shiffrin's familiar Barilla ski cap down over her eyes as cameras flashed.
"That was hilarious," laughed Shiffrin. "It was a perfect funny little picture."
It was the 33rd time in her career Shiffrin had been atop a FIS Ski World Cup podium. But this one seemed a bit out of place. This wasn't about knocking out slalom gates at a rat-tat-tat pace like she had done six days earlier in Killington. This victory was about speed — nearly 80 mph through a mid-course speed trap on the Lake Louise race hill in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. This was about putting her Atomic skis on edge and letting them carve wide, sweeping turns at high speed.
This win was about courage!
Take a look at the top-10 women's downhillers in history — legends of sport like Annemarie Moeser-Proell, Lindsey Vonn and Renate Goetschel. The average time to first World Cup downhill victory – over 12 tries. Mikaela Shiffrin, 22, did it in just four.
"I took some risks and was aggressive," she said with confidence. "For me I know I've put in the work. My skiing today wasn't crazy, just how I was skiing."
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Her win at Lake Louise last Saturday was just one highlight on day you could not possibly have scripted. A power outage shut down the lift. Eventually, innovative race organizers shuttled athletes up the mountain in their fleet of Prinoth snowcats.
"We had this crazy day when the power went out and I was stuck for 45 minutes," said Shiffrin. "When they said they were moving the start down, I thought that was a huge advantage for me so I got really excited — I didn't care when we raced."
The Lake Louise downhill is deceptive. Sure, it's a glider's course. But it catapults you at excessively high speed into sweeping turns that can suck you into trouble and ruin your day — slapping you into the nets. Get off the racing line a little bit wide and it's almost impossible to reel yourself back in.
Shiffrin stood in the lower starting gate wearing number eight, preparing for the sprint. Her eyes scanned the peaks of the Rockies. Unbeknown to her, seconds earlier Rebensburg had crossed the finish line with the lead. Now it was Mikaela's turn, hoping her career-first downhill podium a day earlier was no fluke.
She was pensive, yet focused. She knew with the shortened course she had to accelerate out of the start – skating hard to the first control gate. She exploded out onto the course — reminiscent of her first-run slalom start just a week earlier at Killington.
"I felt like I may have tripped the (timing) wand a bit early so I skated out like a banshee," she said. "I thought I had to make up for lost time — the whole run I had that mindset."
She came down through Waterfall and arced the gigantic left-footed turn into Fishnet that broke the dreams of many a racer that afternoon. She caught a bump and got rattled – suddenly veering inches from the fence. But she rocketed on.
Regaining her composure, she was back on track slicing her way down the course. In the finish she looked to her right and saw the scoreboard go green. She was in the lead — .13 ahead of Rebensburg. One by one the girls kept charging. But no one could match her time. Friday's winner Cornelia Huetter of Austria dropped into third .19 back. Then it came down to Swiss Michele Gisin — starting late in 27th. Gisin put Shiffrin's time to the test, but landed .17 short.
While Shiffrin is quick to point out that skiing speed races won't be an integral part of her plan this season, you couldn't help but wonder what the sport had just witnessed.
"For me it so exciting when I got to the finish to think that I had a plan and executed it," said Shiffrin. "I think today the most courageous skiing I've ever done."