Mikaela Shiffrin: winningest slalom skier of all time (43). World Cup record-holder for most wins in a single season (17). Fulfilled child prodigy on track to become the winningest female skier of all time (currently with 66). Three-time World Cup overall champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Her athletic accolades continue to accumulate. But Shiffrin’s goal ahead of the 2020-21 season is not to break more records; it’s to set the record straight. For over a year, Shiffrin’s personal life has slowly unraveled into a state of turmoil. The season ended abruptly, without closure, after an attempted comeback in Are, Sweden. Then, the COVID-19 outbreak consumed the world and sent Shiffrin and the U.S. Ski Team home without a satisfying conclusion to the season.
Rather than a return to normalcy, finding solace and escape through skiing, the 25-year-old woman became physically isolated, like most of the world, and was forced to wade through an uncharted territory of emotions in ways she’d never imagined.
“Everybody keeps saying 2020 really stinks because of COVID. But this stay-at-home order is the only thing that’s allowing us to bring back some sanity or any kind of control over our lives.”
On July 15, Shiffrin arrived in Hood River, Ore., with her mother, Eileen, and select members of her team. Following U.S. Ski & Snowboard protocols, the group quarantined for a few days and — after testing negative for COVID — was able to get back on snow.
The U.S. women’s ski team successfully kicked off its third on-snow training camp at Mount Hood under unusual circumstances to say the least. International travel is not an option, and the team must work extra hard to get the most out of time on snow.
Something about the trip feels like things are finally getting back to normal for Shiffrin and her mother. On the other hand, nothing will ever feel close to “normal” again.
“Being here in Hood River … we’re lucky to be here because we can kind of feel his presence,” said Shiffrin. “We spent a lot of time here as a family. My dad and mom, we would come here and they would windsurf on the (Columbia River) Gorge. So today we’re looking out watching the kite surfers and windsurfers and they’re all on foils, and (we’ve been) thinking about how he would have been watching that. He was so enthusiastic about that kind of stuff. We can hear his voice. But we don’t feel him everywhere; we can pretty much only feel him at home. So we haven’t wanted to leave.”
By “him,” Shiffrin is referring to her late father, Jeff Shiffrin, who died suddenly after an accident at his home in February.
Prior to the sudden truncation of the ski season due to coronavirus, Shiffrin, along with her mother, Eileen, hastily returned home to Colorado at the beginning of February to be by her father’s side in his final moments. The tragedy was a devastating blow to the family in the midst of what had already been a difficult season. Suddenly, smack dab in the middle of the World Cup calendar, ski racing wasn’t on anyone’s mind, and it was the least of priorities for the Shiffrin family.
A year ago, in July, the then-24-year-old went through a breakup with French tech skier Matthieu Faivre. Not long after, her beloved Nana’s health began to deteriorate. She died just days before the World Cup season began in Soelden. Shiffrin returned to the States for Nana’s favorite race in Killington, Vt., having had no time to grieve. She had to compete.
Then, Shiffrin headed across the pond to tackle the World Cup for the first time without her long-time coach, her mother, by her side. After a few difficult races, and a tough result in Courchevel, both Jeff and Eileen joined Shiffrin across the Atlantic as she took some time to regroup and refocus. She “came back” with a bang in Lienz, Austria, sweeping both the slalom and the giant slalom that weekend. She then went on to win a downhill and a super G in Bansko, Bulgaria before circumstances, both personal and global, derailed the remainder of the World Cup season.
Ever since racing came to a halt, Shiffrin has continued to forge ahead. An unprecedented amount of time at home hasn’t necessarily meant time to take pause and heal. In fact, more time at home has meant she and her mother have had a chance to take on new challenges, becoming the financial officers of Shiffrin’s own brand, taking over the role Jeff used to play as business manager. Shiffrin compares the experience to that of becoming her own CEO, undergoing accounting and bookkeeping courses so her finances — and the finances of her family and team — are all in order prior to heading back to Europe.
The experience of plugging away at home and taking over her father’s managerial role has helped her and her mother hang on to his memory. It’s also incredibly distracting, so much so that moments of solitude and silence often come at a price.
“Sometimes at the end of the day when we’re tired (and) our brains are just finally shut off, all of a sudden some memory is triggered, something like the smell of his Old Spice … and then you realize that’s never gonna happen again,” said Shiffrin.
“Then everything else is just busy and going,” she added through tears. “Just stay on, and keep your mind on something specific. Don’t let yourself get distracted, stay focused, and keep going, and don’t let yourself get to any sort of idle time where your mind might drift to something else because that’s where it really, really hurts.”
That focused, driven, eyes-on-the-prize mindset that Shiffrin must employ to get through the more mundane days at home comes more easily when back on snow, doing what she loves. Skiing takes her to a place of needed peace, a place where she is 100% in control of the outcome.
Unfortunately for Shiffrin and her American teammates, a normal spring and summer schedule is off the table. With little-to-no glacier access, aside from the crowded Palmer Glacier at the peak of Mount Hood, the U.S. Ski Team has had very little access to snow. The organization was lucky to have a short window at Copper Mountain in Colorado and at Mount Bachelor in June. Shiffrin and her team were able to squeeze in some socially distanced training in Aspen this spring, but domestic training does not compare to what she is accustomed to in the Southern Hemisphere. Typically, June and July are allocated for media tours, summer award shows, and dryland training; skiing happens in August and September before the World Cup kicks off at Soelden in October.
But she feels lucky to be on snow and to have access to a surface that compares to that of her European counterparts, many of whom have been on the glacier for most of the spring and summer. She watches from afar as her competitors take time off for vacation between training sessions, wondering what it would be like to have so much opportunity to train that vacations are actually viable.
Making the conditions all the more challenging, Shiffrin’s regular team cannot all be with her during this time. Her tech, Johann Strobl, is unable to fly in from Europe to keep her skis dialed in. Her strength and conditioning coach, Jeff Lackie, is stuck in Canada for the foreseeable future. Head coach Mike Day and physical technician Regan Dewhirst were able to make the commute from Vermont to join her at Mount Hood. And U.S. Ski & Snowboard managed to find a couple more coaches willing to join the staff and help fill in the gaps. But compared to the standards she’s accustomed to, Shiffrin and her staff are making due.
Physically getting to Europe will be a whole other battle. Travelers from the United States are currently barred from entering the European Union. Shiffrin’s passport is also nearly unusable, not because it’s about to expire, but because there isn’t a lot of room left for stamps. (And the U.S. passport office has been taking its time getting her a new one.) In light of the restrictions, Shiffrin is investigating and working toward visa exceptions, not just for her, but for her team personnel and teammates. She questions when getting to Europe will even be possible, if at all. She recently reached out to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee to pressure the organization to find solutions sooner rather than later. FIS has not yet canceled Soelden, and October is quickly approaching. If she manages to get across the pond, returning stateside may not be an option. She’ll be in good company, as every American athlete in Europe this winter will likely face a choice: to commit and stay for seven months or remain in the U.S.
But the lack of on-snow training and potential travel restrictions is not what concerns Shiffrin most about the coming season. In fact, the inability to complete a full prep period actually takes some pressure off when it comes to returning to the World Cup, in terms of expectations at least. Shiffrin is aware that her lack of training may prove to be a disadvantage, but she’s always been a believer in quality over quantity. And besides, if she returns to the World Cup with less training under her belt, the pressure to complete another record-breaking season has been lifted.
It’s battling the changing landscape of the World Cup and ski racing itself that concerns her.
“Preparing for the season mentally, I think for me, it’s going to be a lot more about, not even about the racing or the skiing itself, because so far that’s when I’ve felt the best, the most comfortable, almost like a sense of healing,” Shiffrin said. “But it’s all of the extra drama that is surrounding ski racing. The drama surrounding ski racing in the U.S. right now. And the drama of the media and what people are going to ask, trying to imagine what the questions are going to be and how that might affect what I’m thinking. It’s more about everything else that surrounds ski racing. That, in a way, is going to be more important this year than any other year in order to keep our sport relevant at all in the grand scheme of sports.”
At home, in Vail, Colo., Shiffrin is able to let in what serves her, and keep out what doesn’t. Social media is used as a tool to project positivity, an upbeat attitude that allows distant onlookers to believe she’s successfully moved on from the previous season’s low points. Between exercising a minimum of four hours per day and taking finance classes while meeting media obligations, Shiffrin says she still has not had time to grieve. An incessant need to keep busy, to think about anything and everything other than her loss, thus far, has been the only way to move forward.
So what happens in Europe when a well-intentioned journalist asks a sensitive question, perhaps one that reminds Shiffrin of her father’s stark absence, potentially sending her into a spiral of sadness? How does she handle the never-ending pressure to always win? Where does she hide from probing questions of “vengeance” sought on competitors like Federica Brignone and Petra Vlhova who won the 2019-20 crystal globes?
Unfortunately, in the spotlight, Shiffrin cannot hide. To manage, or even to survive, the scrutiny that is bound to come along with her return to the World Cup, she’ll have to build her own barriers, keep her light close and push out the darkness of the surrounding world. That’s the hope.
“A huge goal for both me and mom is to just have our little bubble and not let anybody in there,” she explained. “What’s at stake is being able to ski and enjoy it. And really the only reason for us to go through any of this is if we feel like it might be enjoyable. Otherwise, we really shouldn’t even be trying to go over to Europe because it’s not worth it with all of the hoops we’re going to have to jump through to get there.”
If the 2020-21 World Cup proceeds as planned, or even proceeds at all, it will be a true testament to Shiffrin’s ability to rise. Many athletes experience a time when injury derails their careers and forces them to fight. Shiffrin has done well to avoid physical injury thus far, although emotionally, she’s coped with more in the past year than most, grappling with loss, the challenges of growing up, finding her voice, and learning what it means to truly be a champion.
Shiffrin is a competitor. Of course, she wants to win. She also knows there will be press conferences and interested journalists and concerned friends (or acquaintances) and a million other things she hasn’t thought of that could derail her focus from skiing.
“I was in the lead of the overall, and I was in the lead of the slalom globe. There are so many things that were there; they were almost there. Things that I wanted before we lost the most important person in our lives,” said Shiffrin. “And then the rest of the world continues. They kept skiing, and they kept celebrating whoever it was when they won or talking about how exciting it was to get the leader bib and win the overall. And all I’m thinking is, ‘Man, people love it when you’re away. People love it when you’re not there. Maybe I shouldn’t come back because they don’t really want you there.’ That’s its own kind of mental hurdle to get across. It’s not about me. And that’s the vindictive attitude that I’m trying to keep as far away from myself as possible.”