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 NBC, told me several months before the Sochi Games began. He was referring most obviously to Shiffrin's talent — and with the 18-year-old's ability to cut sharp paths around snowbound blue and red flags, she's got plenty — but also to her celebrity. Well-scrubbed stars don't come along that often, certainly in less traditional sports like skiing. And when they do, they rarely show this much promise this early, a dream for a marketer seeking the next youthful thing.
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. Tiger Woods and LeBron James, in other words, are the exception, not the rule.
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.
What's striking about prodigies is that they don't do things the way we expect them to, or the way others have done them before. They may look to perfect a sport by standing on the shoulders of giants, but they don't take a usual pose doing it. Shiffrin may make bold, athletic choices, but she also has a penchant of improvisation that leaves coaches — and viewers — gasping.
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 Bob Costas, who noted her talent and then, engaging in a time-tested custom for prodigies at the moment of breakthrough, promised more greatness. “At her age, she can be around not just for the next Olympics, but beyond,” he said.
It was the creation of an Olympic celebrity right before our eyes, formed more fully by her willingness to be herself.
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, Apolo Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympian ever, won just one gold at those Games. Ahn won three, and a bronze to boot. He also won five straight world championships between 2003 and 2007, and became one of the biggest superstars modern South Korea.
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.
So in 2011, despite being one of the most popular athletes in the history of South Korea, Ahn decided to emigrate to Russia, learning a new language and even taking a new first name. He trained hard in his new country, motivated by a desire to show up his old one.
At these Games, his celebrity has returned, albeit in a different form and skin suit.
Ahn has racked up the medals, delighting a crowd that would have once been hostile, an “RU” on his uniform making the point that an old skin can be shed if one wants to badly enough.
On Friday, Ahn did the impossible: He won a gold in short-track’s shortest event, the 500 meter, and also anchored his team to a gold in its longest, the 5,000 meter relay. His win in the former was made more jaw-dropping by the way he did it. Rather than explode off the line in this short-distance event to try to gain the all-important first corner, Ahn allowed all the racers to move in front of him so he could stay in the back and see the field unfold, then lay out a scheme for moving between the men who were in front of him, using his overwhelming speed to make it happen.
An overhead shot from NBC captured the moment. As the gun sounded, Ahn stood on the line for a precious second as all the skaters — like frantic, deluded bees — buzzed out in front of him, the world champion standing stock still, almost amused.
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.
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