Mikaela Shiffrin has yet to medal at Winter Olympics but remains upbeat
BEIJING — The 1.7-mile downhill course plunges through barren brown hillsides, past haggard trees and towering gray rock faces, all transformed by a coating of snow from a storm that passed through a few days earlier.
As Mikaela Shiffrin raced through the wintry showcase at the Yanqing National Alpine Centre on Tuesday, she seemed to have been transformed too.
The world's top female skier didn't win the downhill or even come close.
But after an inexplicable start to the Winter Olympics left her searching for an explanation and struggling to know the path forward, the downhill run without any expectations left her smiling and relaxed after crossing the finish line.
Shiffrin finished 18th in 1 minute 34.36 seconds, about two and a half seconds back from gold medalist Corinne Suter of Switzerland.
"I think it was pretty solid," Shiffrin said. "It's really hard to expect much from results right now with downhill because I haven't done a lot of it."
The event served as preparation for Thursday's combined — one run of the slalom and one run of the downhill — that is the final individual event and one in which she will contend for a medal.
"I'm really happy that I was able to race today," Shiffrin said. "It's in a pretty good spot. Try to maybe turn down the thinking a little bit and try to bring in a little more instinct and see what happens with that."
The Games haven't unfolded as she expected. She didn't finish the giant slalom or the slalom — the signature event where she has won more World Cup races than any man or woman in history — and was as baffled by what had happened as those watching.
The 26-year-old rebounded to place ninth in the super-G. Crossing the finish line had become a victory, a stunning turnabout for a woman who has amassed 72 World Cup victories, 11 world championship medals and two Olympic gold medals during a career where she's established herself as one of the greatest skiers in history.
Even before the difficulties last week, medaling in the downhill had been a long shot. The last time Shiffrin raced the event — early December in Lake Louise, Canada — she finished 38th. Though she has five career World Cup podiums in the downhill, she's competed in it just four times during the last two years.
"If you ask any athlete who's had medals or podiums, your mind is never away from that, there's always some part of you that's thinking, 'maybe there's a chance,'" Shiffrin said after the downhill training session Monday.
"I'm not focusing on the medal anymore. It's just trying to do my best execution every day."
Italy's Sofia Goggia, returning from a knee injury three weeks ago, finished second. Keely Cashman was the top U.S. finisher in 17th, though the Americans were without Breezy Johnson, a medal contender who sustained a knee injury last month and missed the Games.
During a month that has not gone as planned, completing the downhill kept Shiffrin on track to start all five individual events.
"It will be really nice to race but you don't really come to the Olympics to feel nice," she said. "It's going to be intense and a little bit of nerves, but in general I think it's going to be really cool to be able to race and one of my biggest goals coming here was to start in every event. At least that dream may still be alive."
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