My friend, we miss you so much. Losing someone so unexpectedly and suddenly is crushing. The world lost a kind soul, and a family has lost its rock, its foundation. I lost a loved one, a dear friend.
We should remember Jeff by his motto: “Be nice. Think first. Have fun.”
Jeff was so nice. I never heard him say anything unkind about anyone. He had a special sense of humor. His sparkling-eyed fun was always based on kindness. The stories of his kindness as a doctor could fill a book. Virtually everyone I know in the Vail community has a story about Jeff and his kindness to others.
“Think first” is something we can all embrace. It’s all too easy to react when a pause for a deep breath is more appropriate. This ability was innate to Jeff.
Jeff’s “have fun” attitude was often misinterpreted. His idea of having fun was not the easy road, but the type of fun that comes from getting the most out of each day. He espoused the “work hard, play hard” approach to life. He loved windsurfing in Hawaii as much as he loved to climb up the mountain or ski down it. He was a passionate photographer, taking countless ski racing photos of all the competitors in a race.
Jeff found “fun” while deeply engaged in the pursuit of his passions while selflessly sharing these moments with others. His pure enjoyment of life’s activities took him far and wide, connecting him to many who became friends, all whom he cared deeply about.
We should remember Jeff as half of the team that created Team Shiffrin — be it Taylor’s multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees and his accomplishments as a key member of the two-time NCAA Championship team at DU, or Mikaela’s path to becoming the greatest young ski racer of all time. It was always an equal partnership with Eileen. You can’t speak about Jeff and Eileen in isolation, and that’s what makes it so hard for Eileen. Losing Jeff is like being ripped in half. Jeff was completely integrated in the daily lives of Miki, Taylor and Eileen.
As was pointed out in an excellent essay by Matthew Futterman in the New York Times. Jeff was a great ski racing parent. Undoubtedly, his primary motive was to raise children that were good people, full stop. He was immensely proud of the fine adults his children became. He never sacrificed values for results. At the same time, his philosophy should not be confused with a laissez faire approach. Jeff and Eileen had deep conviction about how to develop a ski racer and were committed from Day 1.
First and foremost, athletes do not come out of the womb with a deep love for an activity. It has to be nurtured. Jeff deeply believed that ultimate intrinsic love for an activity has steps. The first step is a gentle introduction. The second step is ignition, and the final step is developing an inherently enjoyable journey. Note there is nothing about results in that equation. Jeff talked about the process incessantly, and never focused on results. Jeff relished his role behind the scenes. The journey was never about him. No one would accuse Jeff of living vicariously through his kids. Just know that “behind the scenes” never meant “not involved.”
But Jeff and Eileen knew the kids ultimately wouldn’t just be competing against their domestic peers if their nurturing support proved successful. They understood that to get different outcomes than the typical US ski racer, you have to do things differently. Their eyes were on Europe from an early point in this journey. They knew you don’t develop a better ski racer just by racing, so chasing races was never in the cards for the Shiffrins. But make no mistake, this was a full-on family commitment. Jeff wouldn’t suggest for a moment that this path is well-suited for everyone. The path they chose takes full immersion by the entire family. It is expensive and hyper-competitive. Even if you do everything right, success at the highest level is a long shot. Seeing this first hand, Jeff often talked about creating more recreational opportunities at low cost for more athletes.
Jeff’s physical presence may have left us, but he will be with us forever looking down as we execute life’s plan. The outpouring of support from the ski racing community has been amazing. No one can ever replace Jeff. But, together the community can do our part to support the Shiffrins in this time of sorrow and beyond. For me, I will draw inspiration from Jeff. I can be nicer. I can take more deep breaths before reacting, and yes, as foreign as it sounds right now, I will try to have fun. I will write his motto as a positive affirmation every day for the rest of my life. I will be there for Eileen, Taylor and Mikaela.
Below is the poem Mikaela quoted at the time of her Nanna’s passing last year. It seems ever so fitting for Jeff.
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am sunlight on ripened grain;
I am autumn’s rain.
When you waken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there I did not die.