Peaks and valleys take their toll as Shiffrin loses spark in slalom

Nyman: Shiffrin is a fighter (2:05)

ESPN's Julie Foudy and Steven Nyman reflect on Mikaela Shiffrin's unexpected fourth place finish in the Alpine Slalom at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeonchang. (2:05)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- When Mikaela Shiffrin stepped into the starting gate for the women's Olympic slalom Friday morning, most believed gold was inevitable. Twenty hours earlier Shiffrin had won the giant slalom, her most challenging event. Slalom was unquestionably her best.

But for Shiffrin, something didn't feel right. Before her first run she vomited violently. She initially thought it was a virus, casting aside any suggestion that it might be nerves. But at the same time she didn't feel comfortable on her skis. Maybe it was the emotion of the previous day, crossing the line faster than anyone else in the world in GS, standing atop the podium to receive her medal, listening to the "Star Spangled Banner" while watching the American flag raised higher than any other. Maybe it was the hulking expectations she had placed upon herself. Or maybe the weight of the history she had the potential to make: the first alpine skier to win back-to-back slalom golds; the first to win three golds in a single Olympics.

Only one alpine skier in history had won Olympic gold medals on consecutive days, Germany's Katja Seizinger in 1998. And only two American winter Olympians, from any sport -- speedskaters Eric Heiden in 1980 and Jack Shea in 1932 -- had accomplished the same.

It wouldn't be easy. And a shaky first run wouldn't help, with Shiffrin finding herself 0.48 seconds off the lead in fourth place after her first run. Coming from behind in slalom was new territory. She had led after the first run in 20 of her previous 21 slalom wins. And you had to go back to March 2013 -- three days after her 18th birthday -- to find the last time she had overcome a deficit of more than 0.4 seconds to win a World Cup slalom.

And yet, as Shiffrin carved her way down the course during her second run Friday, green lights lit up the scoreboard, meaning she was ahead of the fastest time at each interval -- -0.75, -0.64, -0.77, -0.10. But then, when she crossed the finish line, the green would turn to red. And her combined time of 1:39.03 would put her +.08 behind then leader Katharina Gallhuber of Austria with the three fastest skiers from the morning yet to compete. By the time they did, Shiffrin was knocked off the podium, finishing those eight-hundredths of a second off the medal stand.

It was an instant reminder that nothing in sports is automatic. Especially when the event carries as many uncontrollable variables as alpine skiing. On Thursday, Shiffrin did her greatest work on the mountain, deftly maneuvering on the challenging GS course to win gold. On Friday, her moment came after the race, when she introspectively opened up and tried to articulate what went wrong. It was less about her legs and more about what had taken place between her ears.

"I beat myself in the wrong way today," she said. "Rather than just focusing on the good skiing that I know I can do, I was conservative. 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 it would be fine."

But imagine just how challenging that would be. Fourteen hours before this race she had stood atop the medal podium, a grin stretched from ear to ear as a gold medal was draped around her neck. Twelve hours before the race she laid her head on her pillow and tried to fall asleep. It was an hour-and-a-half past her Olympic bedtime.

"Yesterday it was such an emotional high," she said. "I think almost feeling that kind of emotion, it was like I let myself feel too much yesterday. Too much of a peak yesterday and too much of a valley today. When you have two races in a row it's important to have that mental energy stable. I didn't do that today."

No skier in history has won more on the World Cup circuit at the age of 22 than Shiffrin. She's on pace to break most every skiing record. But she has insisted it isn't about the records or medals. It's about how she feels on her skis. And Friday the answer was terrible.

"This is going to sound so arrogant," she began. "But I know I'm the best slalom skier in the world because I've done that skiing so much. And what I did in the race today was not anywhere even close to that. Not even close to what I was doing with my free skiing. But the races are the ones that count."

Shiffrin said she felt far better after her second run than the first. "I didn't puke," she said. She added that she felt fine after the race, helping prove to her that her sickness was in fact nerves, not a virus.

"I don't know what to say," she said. "I really don't know. I think it's more about my own expectations and knowing the magnitude of what I'm trying to do and less about what everybody else wants to see. It's more when I get to the start gate how I feel about what I want to accomplish. And today I didn't feel like I was up for the challenge."

After the race, Shiffrin would only commit to racing in the combined on Feb. 23. She said whether or not she competes in the Feb. 21 downhill will be determined by her times and others in downhill training on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Whenever she competes next, she knows she'll have to move forward and put Friday behind her, no matter how hard that may be.

"I'm terrible at that," she confessed. "Every single loss that I've ever had, I remember that feeling so thoroughly. ... It's like a piece of my heart breaks off and I can never get it back. Today is no different than that. I just have to be able to understand it's part of my life and I'm just learning and I'm 22 years old. I feel like ... ugh ... but it is what it is."