Some Olympic celebrities spend years taking shape. Others are formed before they even step foot on a Games course, somewhere in that no-man's land between national qualifying tournaments and the Opening Ceremony parade.
Mikaela Shiffrin falls unquestionably in the latter category. A reigning World Cup champion at an age when most Americans are generally worrying about acne and prom dates, Shiffrin came into these Games as an anointed one before she snapped in her first boot buckle.
"Maybe the best hope in a generation," Steve Perrino, the former ski champion and downhill analyst for
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Of course, teen phenoms are anointed all the time without making good on that promise fully or quickly. By dint of athletic caprice or sheer math, most prophesied greats end up disappointing when future becomes present.
On Friday we saw what the latest fuss was about, and why Madison Avenue was licking its chops about it. Shiffrin had a decent but not spectacular debut at the giant slalom, so this event, the slalom, was both her best and last chance to be the Olympic upstart. Sure, she'll be back — and probably in her prime — in South Korea in 2018. But four years is an eternity in branding time. And these days a 22-year-old isn't a prodigy, just an Olympian.
So Shiffrin took the course for a potential medal run Friday, skiing last because she scored a field-quickest time with her first run. Commentators had been building her up all night, talking about her teenage-hood (no woman this young had ever won gold in the slalom) and describing, usually over cutaways, her unusual pre-race method of visualizing a run at the top of the mountain. "All those hours of visualizing; all those hours of dreaming," one said.
NBC opened the run with a remarkable shot, forsaking its usual front-angle close-up for a rare shot from behind, at Shiffrin's back, so that we could see the daunting course that awaited her as though through her eyes, but also allowing us to step away from the hullabaloo of an Olympic slopeside event and imagine Shiffrin as she must be feeling, powerful and solitary.
Then she was off, down the mountain and through the markers, knifing into the snow with a surprising lightness, looking to protect a second+ lead that at once seemed impregnable and microscopic.
As she progressed in her run Friday, she took such a sharp line around a flag that she ended up dangerously off-balance, with one ski jutting off at an odd angle and the other up in the air. If you DVR-ed the race and paused it at that point, she would have looked more like a member of the circus than the national ski team. It was fun, scary, Bode-like.
And then, just as quickly, she recovered and made her way down the mountain, the clock that had shown a dwindling lead at splits holding green as she crossed the finish line. She thrust her arms in the air. Her father screamed for joy and then nearly cried.
Shiffrin herself was laughing almost in disbelief, flashing disbelieving looks at family members and friends. When one told her "You got going so fast," she could be heard, with incredulous look in her face, saying "I know! I almost fell over."
She was equally effusive in the post-race interview in describing her start. "That was a pretty crazy moment. I came out of the start and I'm going so fast, I thought ‘I'm not gonna make it!’"
Even better than young champions are young champions who seem human, and Shiffrin's eager, joyous disbelief, like someone who had just pulled off a cannonball dive at a community pool, did as much to endear her to us than any mountainside feat.
NBC analysts and producers were quick to jump on the moment. Over a fade-out, one called her a “teenager whose meteoric rise shows no sign of slowing down,” before a large picture of her smiling face was superimposed over a waving digital flag.
The next image was of studio host
A different narrative took hold with the short-track speed skater Viktor Ahn. At 20, Ahn, a native South Korean known at the time as Hyun-soo Ahn, was on a course similar to that of Shiffrin. He won three gold medals and a bronze at the 2006 Torino Olympics. To give you a sense of how good he was,
But celebrity is a fickle maiden, and a dispute with the South Korean skating association, along with a serious knee injury and a poor qualifying start, led to him missing the cut for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Ahn's career seemed in jeopardy, and with it, his celebrity.
At these Games, his celebrity has returned, albeit in a different form and skin suit.
Ohno, calling the race for NBC, incredulously exclaimed just how strange this move was. "This is something I've never seen in a final in short track," he said. "This man had the race won before … the gun even went off."
True Olympic superstars always have a plan. It can just take a little longer for some of them to carry it out.