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While the harsh cold of PyeongChang, South Korea, dominated headlines in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, the wind has been one of the biggest factors over the course of the games.
Fierce winds ripping through the Taebek Mountains have directly impacted many athletes, including American Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin who came into the Olympics hoping to claim five gold medals.
Shiffrin, one of the most accomplished skiers in the world, has over 30 World Cup victories and a gold medal in the slalom from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
However, persistently windy conditions since the start of the games forced significant alterations of the Alpine skiing schedule, which meant women's medal events were held on three straight days, from Feb. 15-17 rather than being spaced out over the course of a week. Winds were reportedly around 20 mph, with some gusts reaching over 40 mph, on some of the windiest days.
Due to the condensed timeline of the competition, Shiffrin was forced to withdraw from two medal events, including last weekend’s super-G and the women’s downhill on Wednesday, Feb. 21.
“She will have raced and trained, or tried to race, for six days in a row,” Shiffrin's mother, Eileen Shiffrin, told USA Today Thursday, Feb. 15. “She has to have a day off.”
Shriffin is expected to compete in the Alpine combined event, which was moved up to Thursday, Feb. 22, because high winds are forecast for Friday.
“As much as I wanted to compete in the Olympic downhill, with the schedule change it’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined,” Shiffrin said. “I’m looking forward to cheering on our girls racing in the downhill and to compete myself in Thursday’s combined."
So far, Shiffrin has had mixed results in during these games, placing fourth in the slalom, but claiming a gold medal in the women’s giant slalom.
The six medal events in Alpine skiing include super-G, downhill, Alpine combined, slalom, giant slalom and an Alpine team event.
Shiffrin was considered one of the favorites to take home gold in the slalom, after earning a gold medal in the event in Sochi in 2014.
Despite all the delays and rescheduled events, Shiffrin has repeatedly credited officials for allowing fair racing conditions for all competitors.
“There have been a lot of schedule changes this Games from the weather and while that is frustrating, everyone is doing their best to work with it! Just wanna take the opportunity to thank everyone involved in getting all of the races off and making them as fair as possible! It’s not easy with Mother Nature sometimes but that’s how it goes!” Shiffrin wrote in an Instagram post.
Postponements due to wind are not uncommon for Alpine races such as super-G and downhill.
“We’ve been through days like this before, on world cup quite often,” U.S. women’s head coach Paul Kristofic said. “They do happen to us, so we’re quite used to it.”
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The predominant weather pattern in PyeongChang during this time of year is a cold and dry air flow from the northwest. An area of high pressure known as a Siberian High originates from Siberia and usually results in cold winds reaching the Korean Peninsula.
Accuweather Senior Meteorologist Jason Nicholls said given the terrain and elevation, PyeongChang would logically seem to be a windy place overall.
“There have not really been strong storms over the area during the games. However, the varied terrain can act to modify and funnel winds. The funneling of winds through various passes can help accelerate them,” he said.
“The strongest winds tends to occur when a Siberian High moves into northeastern China with a prevailing flow from the north to northwest,” Nichols said.
During the first week of competition, some controversy ensued after officials did not postpone the women’s slopestyle snowboarding event. Crosswinds during the competition were so strong that many of the athletes fell while competing, and some said the event should’ve been rescheduled.
”Yes it should have been postponed,“ Austrian snowboarder Anna Gasser told Reuters. ”We tried to speak to officials but the Olympics put us under pressure to do it today."
However, some other participants, including American Hailey Landland, felt like it was the right call to compete.
“We are snowboarders and should be able to deal with it. The girls on the podium showed that and that is why they are up there,” she told Reuters.
Other events impacted by wind included the women's biathlon at the Alpensia Biathalon Centre. Wind gusts of more than 15 mph reportedly made it too difficult for competitors to shoot their rifles.
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