Newmann: Finding the edge
“Life is true to form; records are meant to be broken” — Mark Spitz
Mark Spitz certainly knew about records. He won seven gold medals in swimming, each in world-record time, at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And his record medal performance lasted for 36 years, until Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Games.
The Olympics are a stage for many recurring events that many of us never pay much attention to prior to the Games. Then, rather suddenly, sports like curling, short-track speed skating, rhythmic gymnastics and race walking take center stage — and often become a fixation for viewers.
In the 2022 Winter Olympics, skiing became a focal point for many people who ski … and for many more who don’t. The bulk of the attention focused on Mikaela Shiffrin — and her quest for five medals. The hype began early, expectations grew as the Games approached and then, well, then it all came crashing down when Shiffrin failed to medal in any event. And the inquisitions began. “What happened?” “How could she have failed?” “She let us all down.”
Ski racing is a very complicated sport. Snow conditions change by the minute. Courses, set on groomed snow, deteriorate with each run by each racer. Start first and the course is in the best condition; start 30th and the chatter marks and ruts can turn the course into a minefield.
Support Local Journalism
The ski techs play a huge role in the success, or lack of same, of racers. The exact edge bevel, the appropriate base structure, and the correct wax for the snow conditions … these are all factors that can influence the outcome of a race for each competitor.
Ski racing is not a sport of inches — it’s a sport of millimeters. A seemingly insignificant skid, a slightly misjudged line, an infinitesimal arm movement that drops the body out of alignment for an instant these can knock a tenth (or a hundredth) of a second off a racer’s time and mean the difference between a podium finisher and an also-ran.
And then there’s the psyche of each individual at the start gate. Is the necessary focus and intensity there at that particular instant? Is the racer in the zone? Or are other factors, which can create background noise, in play?
Shiffrin, supposedly infallible on a race course, didn’t deliver to the expectations of others during Beijing. And, listening to her candid assessments of her performance in interview after interview, she didn’t deliver to her own expectations. But that’s just ski racing. And maybe life in general. You’re not always on your game. Stuff happens, some of it inexplicable. But most of us are not pressed to explain ourselves over and over again if things go awry.
After the “disaster” of Beijing, Shiffrin went on to win the overall World Cup title, a feat of consistency that rivals, if not trumps, an Olympic medal. But the memory of her Games still lingered for many folks.
Maybe now the critics who derided her supposed failures will finally sit up and take notice. Shiffrin’s two giant slalom victories, both by astounding margins, earlier this week gave her the record for the most wins by any woman in World Cup history … and launched her toward becoming the winningest skier (male or female) in the history of the sport.
Beijing is firmly in the rearview mirror. And the future … well, she’s now in a zone that defies description.
As Spitz noted, “Life is true to form.”
And records are meant to be broken.
Tom Newmann splits his time between Edwards and Queenstown, New Zealand. He has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at email@example.com.