Mikaela Shiffrin wanted to cap off the Alpine world championships in signature form, finishing the biggest skiing event outside of the Olympics with another gold medal at the end of nearly two weeks of drama.
But it was not to be, even though the event finished with slalom, her best discipline event. Shiffrin lost her lead at the top of the second run and had to settle for her second silver in these world championships and her third medal of the meet. She won the gold medal in giant slalom Thursday and last week won the silver in super-G. Only a slip in the final stretch of the slalom portion of the Alpine combined prevented her from winning a medal in every race she competed in, and she did so amid a very public breakup with her longtime coach in the middle of the event.
Laurence St-Germain of Canada was 0.61 behind in third place after the first run but skied aggressively in her second time down the hill to put herself in position for her first world championship. Shiffrin then made too many mistakes at the top of her run and could not find enough speed at the bottom to make up for it, finishing .57 seconds behind, a massive turnaround.
It was Shiffrin’s 14th overall medal at the world championships. She is second behind Christl Cranz, a German skier from the 1930s who won 12 gold and 15 total medals during an era when the world championships were held every year rather than the biennial event they are today. Shiffrin has won more world-championship gold and overall medals than any skier of the modern era now, the latest milestone in a season that has been filled with them.
Last month, Shiffrin, 27, broke her fellow American Lindsey Vonn’s record by winning her 83rd World Cup race, the most by a female skier. She now stands at 85, one short of the overall record, set by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in the 1970s and ’80s. That mark figures to be in serious danger of falling during the final stretch of the season in March with multiple technical races left on the schedule.
Even though she is expected to win every slalom race, Shiffrin arrived at the ski hill in Méribel, France, in the Alps with little pressure, since she already had a pocketful of medals at this world championship. Those medals, and especially her win in the giant slalom, had exorcised the demons of the Beijing Olympics, where she failed to finish three events and finished far-off the podium in the other two.
“In a way, the pressure is off, and the most important thing for me is to try to enjoy the last event of this world championships,” Shiffrin said after her giant slalom win on Thursday.
Shiffrin skiing with the weight of the world on her shoulders can be tough to beat in a technical race, as opposed to speed events, which have never been her strength. But put her in the starting hut with nothing to lose and a chance to ski with the freedom and joy she is always searching for, and getting the better of her becomes nearly impossible.
That looked like it was going to be the case Saturday, when Shiffrin started strong. She was in first place by .19 hundredths of a second ahead of Swiss skier Wendy Holdener.
With the temperatures warming and the sun splashing across the bottom half of the hill for the second run, Shiffrin caught a massive break when Holdener skied out as she tried to take over the lead. That gave Shiffrin plenty of breathing room, though maybe too much. Her lead was down to a little more than a tenth of a second after the first section of the race then quickly disappeared.
The slalom silver came at the end of a world championships loaded with drama that included the departure of her longtime coach, her failure to finish the first event and her decision to sign onto a letter with more than 100 other athletes calling on the International Ski Federation to help tackle climate change, saying the organization’s sustainability efforts are “insufficient.”
The letter was addressed to Johan Eliasch, president of the federation.
Mike Day, one of Shiffrin’s top coaches, abruptly left the world championships earlier this week after learning that she planned to let him go at the end of the season. Shiffrin said she never intended for the split to come to a head at the world championships.
“It’s a little bit sad how it all came down,” she said.
She still had one of the most successful championships of her career, and yet another highlight in a season that now has her answering questions about whether she is the greatest female athlete of all-time in any sport, a title she said she had never sought.
“Some people consider me the greatest and some people don’t even consider me part of the conversation,” she said. “Both things are perfectly fine.”
It did not end the way she wanted it to but after a world championships that was more the former than the latter, last year’s Beijing Olympics now feel like a long time ago.