YINQANG, China - Let's be clear about this much: When Mikaela Shiffrin stood with the glare bouncing off the snow beneath her Friday afternoon, she had no obligation - zero - to share her most honest evaluation of a stay here that has been, thus far, nothing short of distressing. Yet here is what she offered, unsolicited: Before she strapped in for yet another race she had no idea whether she would - or could - finish, she had a dream that kept stirring her awake, lulling her back to sleep, then repeating again.
"I skied out on the fifth gate," Shiffrin said. "Surprise!"
She laughed. There's honesty in the nightmare. There's a mask in the chuckle.
"It really felt pretty awful to have that dream again and again," Shiffrin said.
Heartbreak can be horrible to watch, but there's a reason traffic slows in both directions near a car wreck. There is curiosity about failure that is some mixture of morbid and mesmerizing and human. It's why Shiffrin's third Olympics - which, now three races old, have produced zero medals and only one upright trip across the finish line - have carried news cycles. It's because she expected to medal in Monday's giant slalom and made it just five gates. It's because she expected to medal in Wednesday's slalom and again made it just five gates.
And it's because, in assessing her performances, she not only opens the book about how she feels as this all plays out, but then offers to turn the page and read aloud to you as the drama gets more intense. Most people would shudder and slam the book shut. Shiffrin dives in.
At 26, she is some combination of unable and unwilling to distance herself from the reactions to her performances, both the headlines about crashing out and the keep-your-chin-up reaction on social media. She does not wall herself off from any of it, nor does she build walls around herself so you wonder what's going on. If you want to know how she feels about it all, you don't have to guess. Just ask.
"I wouldn't have expected so much support and understanding in a situation where I failed twice to do the job that I am supposed to do," she said. "I can say that. That's the honest truth, because I've spent the last, I don't know, 12 years doing that job."
She knows her standard. She is not meeting her standard. She is not hiding from her standard.
This is an extraordinary performance. Not athletically, because Shiffrin is of course capable of far better - and not just in the two races she didn't come close to finishing, but in the super-G as well, though it's far from a specialty. Friday, she was more than three-quarters of a second behind the pace of gold medal winner Lara Gut-Behrami of Switzerland, just more than a half-second out of a spot for a medal. In the impossibly precise sport of Alpine ski racing, over a course that was nearly 1¼ miles long, that was good for ninth.
No, what should be appreciated in Shiffrin's work here is the introspection with which she has assessed her hardest moments. After each race, she has essentially hopped up onto an operating table, cut herself open, and handed out scalpels to give observers the chance to dissect every aspect of what's going on. In some areas, there aren't identifiable explanations, and there may never be. But brutal self-assessment in real-time, when there's still more racing to come, is rare for an elite athlete.
It would be easiest to avoid publicly talking about failure - that searing, jarring word. It would be easier to slip into "it is what it is" cliches, because sports fans have learned to expect those from athletes. Shiffrin instead is opening the door to her psychologist's office and inviting the world onto the couch. Grab a pillow. Get comfortable.
How was she feeling entering the super-G, after just three training runs Thursday? Her mother, who serves as one of her coaches, wondered whether it would be safe.
"After the last week, there's been a lot of emotional fatigue, and I feel - yeah, I feel emotionally weary right now," Shiffrin said. "There's definitely a sense of dullness, and you can't have that racing - especially not racing speed [races, of which super-G is one]. But when we got out today, I just feel a little bit more settled, a little bit quieter, trying to keep some calmness and just trying to focus on the task at hand so I could put my attention where I wanted - and ski the hill and the course properly."
For someone who has won two Olympic golds, six more at world championships and 73 World Cup races over the course of an exceptional career, that can sound like a strikingly modest goal. But at this point, it's about staring into the unknown, but trying anyway. Asked if she intended to ski in the women's downhill, she said, "That's the plan!" She has skied just two downhill races on the World Cup circuit this year. A medal is unlikely, a victory even less so. She is opening the door to . . . well, let her tell it.
"Failure is a scary word, and disappointment - and, I mean, all the negative words" are scary, Shiffrin said. "Because we're supposed to be kind to ourselves. And that's OK. But I do consider it failure. I think a lot of people do."
They do. They just do. That isn't just because there was hype behind Shiffrin before these Games. It is because she is capable of better, and she would race to be the first one to acknowledge that.
But part of the autopsy of this Olympics - which isn't complete, because the downhill will be followed next week by the Alpine combined - is meshing the perspective of the crushing results thus far with the entirety of a professional and public life.
"I can go back and say I won medals before in my career, and that's wonderful," Shiffrin said. "But it doesn't take away any hurt or disappointment from these races, and I think it's possible to feel both proud of a career and sad for the moment you're in."
The moment Mikaela Shiffrin is in is ongoing. Her Olympics aren't over yet. They may not be worth marveling at on snow. But off it, she's deserving of appreciation, because a significant part of sports is failure. And assessing it, often brutally, is more difficult than winning.