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Sweden’s Sara Hector is a case study in grit. Sidelined by a catastrophic knee injury seven years ago, the 29-year-old took a wire-to-wire win in the Olympic giant slalom on Monday.
“Crazy,” she said of her performance. “I’m so proud, I can’t put it into words.”
Known as the most competitive event in World Cup skiing with eight different women winning races over the past two seasons, women’s GS was set to be one of the most hotly-contested alpine skiing events at the 2022 Games.
Headlining that group of winners was none other than American superstar and 2018 Giant Slalom Olympic Champion Mikaela Shiffrin. A serious medal contender in five events heading into the Games, Shiffrin’s 2022 campaign got off to a shaky start after crashing out of the course only five gates into her first run.
Shiffrin was the seventh racer out of the start in the morning and attacked the opening gates on the extremely steep race pitch before being pushed low on a right hand turn. The 26-year-old Vail native was forced to aggressively correct her line and became so angulated in the next turn that her inside boot touched the snow, disengaged her edge, and took her feet out from under her. It’s the first time the American has crashed out of a GS course since 2018.
“I was pushing, or felt that I was pushing those turns,” Shiffrin said of her mistake. “The day was finished basically before it even started, but I felt that I had the right mentality. I’m proud of those five turns, but it’s a huge disappointment. I could blame it on a lot of things, and we’ll analyze it until the cows come home. Today I chalk it up to really awful timing of a really frustrating mistake.”
Hector held the lead after an incredibly powerful first run that saw many racers struggle with the aggressive man-made snow, turny course, and high speeds. She didn’t skip a beat in run two and skied with confidence and aggression en route to her first Olympic medal.
“I don’t know how to describe them,” she said of how she dealt with the tension of leading at the Olympics. “It’s been so much all day. I’ve been so nervous. It’s so much feeling, it’s crazy. It’s for sure a lot of joy.”
Italy’s Federica Brignone, another World Cup winner, took silver, 0.28 seconds behind Hector. After a lackluster start to her season with no podium finishes in GS, she managed to return to her signature go-for-broke style and secure a silver to go with her bronze from 2018.
“I’m getting better and better with my confidence this year,” she said. “I knew that I just had to ski … I was really focused, and that was the thing for me today.”
Defending World GS Champion, Switzerland’s Lara Gut-Behrami, claimed a hard-fought bronze medal in third. After sitting in eighth place after the first run, the Swiss laid down the fastest second run time to leapfrog onto the podium.
“Last year, winning a gold in Cortina [at the World Championships], and now this bronze – yeah, it’s amazing,” she said.
After Shiffrin’s early exit, American Nina O’Brien skied aggressively to finish in sixth place after run one. O’Brien attacked again in run number two before crashing through the final gate of the course and violently tumbling through the finish line. The race was held for nearly 20 minutes while O’Brien was taken off in a sled.
“We’re so heartbroken for [Nina],” Shiffrin, who was in the finish area to cheer on her teammates after her DNF, posted to Instagram after O’Brien’s crash. “She showed so much heart and fire in her skiing today, and it all got shredded to pieces on the final turn. This sport…this sport is so damn hard.”
The U.S. Ski Team reported that O’Brien was alert and responsive in the finish and was transported with team medical staff for further evaluation. As of this report, no further updates on her condition have been provided.
The lone American finisher was Minnesota’s Paula Moltzan in 12th. The fourth American starter in the women’s GS, AJ Hurt, did not complete her first run.
The women continue racing with slalom on Feb. 9. Tune into NBC’s Peacock at 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 8 to livestream the action of the first run.