SOCHI, Russia — Mikaela Shiffrin had spent the last 36 hours being led from interview to interview, being asked the same questions.
What’s it like to have a gold medal?
What does it mean to you?
How does it feel?
She’s still trying to figure out the answers.
“I don’t really know how it feels, but it’s definitely good,” she said Sunday. “Definitely a positive thing.”
But she’s happy to do the interviews, even fighting a cold, as she helps hype skiing to the American public in a way that’s only possible every four years and becomes a household name in the process.
Shiffrin, 18, of Eagle-Vail, won the slalom gold medal Friday night, becoming the first female American winner of the Olympic slalom since 1972. She came into the event as the favorite, and lived up to those expectations in a big way.
“Right after the races we went straight down to the coastal cluster and did an interview with Bob Costas,” Shiffrin said. “Then I didn’t get back to the hotel until 3:30 and I went straight to bed and then got up the next morning and did a ton of interviews again, so it’s been really exciting. It’s cool to see how much support there is in the United States and here, and just everybody seems so excited.”
Shiffrin is now at the pinnacle of alpine skiing, but she’s still thinking about the Vail locals who helped her get there.
Two of Shiffrin’s biggest focuses in skiing are having fun and learning. She credited Ski and Snowboard Club Vail coaches Simon Marsh and Rika Moore as being key to both those things.
“Simon, he just taught me passion for skiing,” she said. “I still see his group of 10 little ski guys who are ripping around the mountain, and they’re all fighting over who gets to sit on the lift with him and how much fun it’s going to be. And I remember being that kid, wanting to sit next to him on the lift, and he really sparked my passion for the sport.”
That passion continue right through to the second run of her gold medal performance. Casting aside all the pressure, she told her mom, Eileen, that she just wanted to go out and ski slalom because that’s what she loves to do.
“I started the sport because I was passionate about it, because of Simon and my parents, and I’ve continued it and gotten to this point because I’ve kept that passion,” Shiffrin said.
She recalled begging Moore to teach her how to cross-block gates, even when she was too young to actually do it.
“Finally, she said, ‘OK, I’ll teach you, but you have to promise not to do it until you’re big enough to do it right,’” Shiffrin said. “So she taught me and I would take one run a day where I tried it out and the rest of them I’d ski around the gates. When I was finally able to do it properly, I picked it up like that, thanks to her.”
Shiffrin was able to take a break from the media interviews for a few minutes Sunday at the Procter and Gamble House in the Olympic Park as part of the “Thank You, Mom” campaign. The house allows U.S. athletes and their moms to have some comforts of home while competing at the games.
Shiffrin and her mom, Eileen, who travels with Mikaela on the World Cup, got some pampering at the salon, which Mikaela said was actually the coolest thing that’s happened to her in the last couple days — besides winning the gold medal.
“The first thing they said was, ‘Let’s do a facial!” and I’m like, “Yes, we’re doing a facial!’ and then I got my hair pampered, and my mom’s sitting right next to me, and she’s getting her nails done, and I said, ‘This is amazing! Why didn’t I come down here sooner?”
Well, first she had to win a gold medal. Shiffrin competed in the giant slalom on Tuesday and earned a fifth-place finish in the discipline that’s not her best, but is quickly improving.
Her teammate Julia Mancuso, who won bronze in these games and has won more Olympic medals than any American womanin alpine skiing, including the 2006 gold in giant slalom, gave Shiffrin a lot of support during the GS, which was huge for Shiffrin.
“To be at my first Olympics and be competing alongside her and to have her be supporting me meant more to me than I thought it would,” Shiffrin said. “She didn’t finish the first run but she came up to me and said, ‘Kill it out there. You rip the second run, and we’re rooting for you.’ I was just like, that’s really cool. That’s Julia Mancuso.”
Shiffrin also had a cheering contingent from Vail. Her good friend Thomas Walsh, a fellow ski racer from Vail who has battled Ewing’s sarcoma, came to the Olympics with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She was able to talk with him after the GS, which took place in the pouring, cold rain.
“That just made it so worth it for me to see him out there after everything he’s been through,” Shiffrin said. “He makes me feel so important, and it’s pretty cool.”
Shiffrin will now go to New York for more media and then head back to Europe to finish out the World Cup season. She expects to be back in Vail some time in April.
Her parents, Jeff and Eileen, have always reinforced that Mikaela needs to practice and prepare for the next step, reach it, and then look to the next goal.
The skiing prodigy is already thinking about what’s next. In a press conference Saturday, she told members of the media her goal for the 2018 Olympics was to win five gold medals.
But before that, she’ll compete in the 2015 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Beaver Creek, just a few miles from her home. She said her focus will be GS and slalom, but didn’t rule out possibly racing in super-G or downhill.
“We’ll see,” she said. “I’m trying to kind of take it day by day and just make sure I’m prepared for what events I’m going to race,” she said.
For now, though, she’s soaking in the Olympic gold medal, which goes alongside her World Championships gold medal and her World Cup slalom globe. It’s completely different from her other accomplishments, but perhaps the greatest yet.
“The Olympics are completely different because it’s the one race,” Shiffrin said. “So I’m equally as proud of this as any of my accomplishments, maybe more so, because it really did boil down to two runs about two minutes long, and I just had to ski my best.”