Olympic athletes, even the most successful, seem to appear out of nowhere every four years. We’re witnessing this re-appearance during the South Korea Olympics.
It’s the strangest phenomenon in sport. These athletes emerge from anonymity to become world celebrities and then return to being close to anonymous. Unless you’re, say, an extremely devoted follower of slalom racing, chances are you have not seen Colorado resident Mikaela Shiffrin compete since her sensational performance at Sochi in 2014.
This phenomenon multiplies the pressure on athletes to perform. A world champion can remain anonymous unless she/he delivers on the world stage that is the Olympics. This is not fair. This is reality.
For me, the prime lure of this coming Olympics, or any Olympics, is watching athletes who have spent years competing in the shadows emerge to compete with much of the world watching.
The possibilities are immense, both for catastrophe and wonder. An athlete can vault to fame and riches, or crash. And the difference between those two extremes can hinge on one instant.
In 2014, I stood on a mountainside in Sochi watching Shiffrin prepare for her second run on the slalom. She led the field by a dominating half-second. She was on the brink of a gold medal.
She had prepared for this moment almost since birth. As a child, her parents set up a two-mile course near Vail where she rode a unicycle. She rode the unicycle while juggling. Yes, while juggling.
For months, she obsessed about winning gold in Sochi. As she rode a chair lift to her second run, she knew her moment was near. Sitting on the chair, a long way from her Colorado home, she started weeping.
A few minutes later, it almost fell apart. Midway through her run, she briefly lost her balance and almost lost her medal. Catastrophe was right there, ready to grab her.
“'Oh, I’m going out of the course,’” Shiffrin said to herself.
Somehow, she willed herself back to balance. She won her gold. But the near fall left her shaken.
“I was a pretty terrifying experience really,” she said. “It’s probably not the worst thing that could happen in my life.”
She was right, of course. Much worse things could happen in her personal life. But not much worse could have happened to her athletic life.
A few days after Shiffrin’s moment of glory, I witnessed the U.S. hockey team’s moment of agony. The Americans led the Canadians, queens of world hockey, by two goals in the third period. Victory and world domination were a few minutes away.
The Canadians rallied, scored the tying goal after pulling their goalie and seized victory in overtime.
“A Greek tragedy,” a Swiss journalist told me after the game. He wasn’t exaggerating. The loss was that sad.
After the game, I stood in a small crowd talking with America’s Kelli Stack. She had come achingly close to clinching victory with a late long shot at Canada’s empty net. The shot hit the post.
As Stack talked with us, she had a silver medal around her neck. She never once looked at it.
It was an odd moment. We kept expecting Stack to leave, but she kept talking. Eventually, she told us she didn’t want to return to the American locker room.
“The hardest part is going to be to go into that locker room,” she said. “Everyone is going to be so sad.”
It was so sad. On the sports stage like no other, the American had come achingly close to victory. Instead, they had to suffer on that grand, cruel stage.
At these Olympics, the world again is watching, and so much joy is possible for the athletes.
But so much sorrow is lurking out there, too.