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Alpine skiing at the Beijing Winter Olympics is off to an unpredictable start

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

There's a saying to describe the unpredictability of sport - that's why they play the game. It was very much the case on a surprising first day of alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics in China. It was a day that started with high hopes for a young Olympic star but ended with a message of hope for the late bloomers of the world. From Beijing, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: American Mikaela Shiffrin came to these games with the weight of expectations and a heart heavy from her father's sudden death two years ago. But there was a sense that once her skis hit snow, she'd lock into what's made her a three-time Olympic medalist at the still young age of 26.

On Monday, that sense lasted about 11 seconds. In her first of two runs in the giant slalom, a race she won at the Olympics four years ago, Shiffrin slid into a fall and a stunning disqualification, her first DNF - did not finish - in a giant slalom in four years. Hers was one of 19 DNFs on the first run, a sign perhaps the new Olympic course was presenting an unfair challenge. But Shiffrin didn't criticize. She blamed herself for what she called a small mistiming when she went to push on her ski edges.

When the race was over, Shiffrin tweeted congrats to winner Sara Hector of Sweden and concern for U.S. teammate Nina O'Brien, who had a bad crash at the finish line. She had to be taken away in a sled but reportedly was alert and calm. The day Shiffrin described as turbulent followed more of a script for the men's downhill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: A drone can only just keep up with Beat Feuz here. He's skiing around about 85 miles an hour.

GOLDMAN: This was Switzerland's Beat Feuz rocketing to victory right before the Olympics. Indeed, he came into yesterday as one of the top contenders, and his win in China merely confirmed his preeminence. Still, the script almost flipped. Feuz won by only one-tenth of a second over Johan Clarey, a 41-year-old Frenchman who won his first Olympic medal in his fourth Games. He's the oldest Olympic medal winner in Alpine skiing history and said afterwards doing things late in life is nothing new.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHAN CLAREY: Since I was a young boy. That's why my mother says I took time to do everything - walking, speaking and everything. So apparently for my sport career it is quite the same.

GOLDMAN: Clarey didn't say what his plans are, nothing about retiring as a medal winner. And why should he? When you succeed late, when exactly is too late? An unpredictable day in Olympic alpine skiing and only Day 1. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "THE MAN WHO TOOK MY SUNGLASSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.