Mikaela Shiffrin Resets
12:23 PM EST on January 11, 2023
Not all that long ago in Mikaela Shiffrin’s trophy-studded, storied ski career, there was a moment when it seemed like it all might be going—forgive me—downhill.
It was February of last year in Beijing. Coming into the Olympics, Shiffrin had been built up as one of the U.S.’s best athletes, and with reason. She had 73 World Cup victories to her name, more than any skier in history aside from Lindsey Vonn (82) and Ingemar Stenmark (86). She was a contender for all five disciplines in alpine ski racing at those Games. She’d been an overall World Cup champion, which takes into account wins across all disciplines over a whole season, three times. She had three Olympic medals to her name.
But she failed to finish at the giant slalom, one of her specialties. Then in the slalom, her main event—she was already the most decorated slalom skier, male or female, in history—she skied out on the fifth gate. It didn’t get better from there. She came home empty-handed.
Many of those familiar with Shiffrin, including anyone who had been following her since she first broke onto the global stage—when she was 18, nabbing her first Olympic gold at Sochi, or even before that, like when she podiumed in the World Cup for the first time at age 16, or won her first World Cup a year later—believed she’d turn it around. They were also aware of the two grueling years the skier had just been through, which included not only a pandemic that turned the world (and World Cup schedule) upside-down, but also her father’s unexpected death.
But to the more general public, which tends to tune into alpine skiing once every four years if at all, Shiffrin’s Olympic showing wasn’t a blip, but a period. It was, perhaps, the beginning of the end.
Well, about that.
Less than a year after her Olympic showing, at Kranjska Gora in Slovenia on Sunday, Shiffrin won her eighth World Cup race this season. Most skiers would be thrilled to win eight World Cup races over the course of a career. And the season’s only halfway through.
What is really causing fans and media to hyperventilate into their proverbial paper bags, though, is what this means for The Record. Shiffrin’s Sunday win brought her career World Cup victory count to 82—the number of victories Lindsey Vonn retired with as the most decorated woman in ski racing.
Shiffrin came in second in the following slalom on Tuesday. But she has many more chances to notch another victory and break Vonn’s record before the season closes: 14 or so, depending on which races she chooses to enter. And while it would be incredibly ambitious, even in a red-hot season like this one, it’s not even out of reach for her to break Stenmark’s record of 86 victories—which would make her the most successful World Cup racer in history.
For what it’s worth, Shiffrin, ever aware of just how many variables play into a sport that is won or lost by the thousandth of a second, isn’t putting her money on that last one. “I don’t think it’s going to happen this season,” she says. “I know it could. I know it’s possible. We have a lot of races left, and there’s not that many till I get to that number. But I might not win another race this season!”
If it doesn’t happen this season? There’s plenty of time. Shiffrin is only 27. All being well, and as long as she continues to avoid the kinds of crashes and injuries that plagued speed specialist Vonn, she has at least four more years of a career.
Not that she hasn’t encountered an excruciating injury already, one that couldn’t be repaired with surgery but which still required every ounce of commitment to rehabilitate: the untimely death of her father, Jeff.
Coming out of a highly successful 2019–20 season, Shiffrin seemed invincible. Then, in early February 2020, at her hotel in Trentino, her brother called. Jeff had had an accident at home. He died shortly after Shiffrin and her mother arrived.
“That trauma after someone that important dies in your life, that’s an injury people don’t really—they can’t really put a name on. They can’t show an X-ray to the world about how mangled your soul is, your heart, and that there are some days where you have lost the will to live,” Shiffrin says.
One example is her energy levels. She always used to be an athlete with unparalleled stamina, both physical and mental. She’s had to fight to get that back. Since her dad’s death, she says, “if I have a really good first run, I don't have energy to do well again the second run, partially because that's sort of a symptom of grief. It's like a fogginess in your brain. It's like having a concussion. And it's lasted for, quite literally, three years for me."
After her dad’s death, Shiffrin took a few weeks off. She put on skis and entered the race hut for the first time in March 2020 in Are. The next day, COVID-19 shut the world down.
All things considered, the next season went well. Out of 21 races she started, Shiffrin failed to podium in just six. But then came Beijing.
Shiffrin’s Olympic showing hurt. Not just because she didn’t medal. But, perhaps even more so, because it wasn’t good skiing. (For the three races where she DNFed, it wasn’t much skiing at all.) “I’ve never been in this position, and I don’t know how to handle it,” she tearfully told reporters after skiing out of the slalom.
It wasn’t just Shiffrin who was hard on herself. Strangers sitting on their couches at home, seemingly convinced by Shiffrin’s past accolades that winning gold was not only easy for her, but something she personally owed them, made sure to tell her just how much she’d let them down. Shiffrin highlighted some of the comments thrown her way. “You’re [sic] time is over, retire.” “Got what you deserved.” “Dumb blonde." “Disgrace. Unacceptable." “Dumb bitch can’t even do the one thing she’s supposed to do right."
It got to her. Of course it did. But she came out fighting. “Let the turkeys get you down. There will always be turkeys. Or get up, again, again, again,” she posted in response.
Her response made something else clear, too: what her motivation really is.
“Why do I keep coming back?” she asked. “Gosh knows it hurts more than it feels good lately. I come back because those first nine turns today were spectacular, really heaven. That’s where I’m meant to be and I’m stubborn as shit.”
Shiffrin tries her hardest not to get hung up on medals or even records. She focuses on the turns.
In fact, even whether she breaks Vonn’s record or not, she said earlier this year, isn’t her top concern. “What I want to do along the way is feel really proud of my skiing and what I accomplish, actually, with my turns. And I think people get sick and tired of hearing that, but that’s the only thing that gives me something back in this sport. Because the record talk doesn’t give me anything except pressure.”
She doesn’t even like to say she “breaks” records. She thinks that’s too dismissive of the talent that came before. Instead she prefers to say she “resets” them.
This hyperfocus—one she’s always maintained—might be somewhat unique in a sport where wins are quantifiable, to the hundredth of a second, and reflect the total package of a skier’s skills and performance on that day. And the acknowledgement of feeling pressure could be mistaken, by those who don’t know any better, for weakness. But it works for her.
Take this season. There was a moment here, too, when it didn’t seem like Shiffrin was going to return to form. It started promisingly enough: She won two opening World Cup races back-to-back, both slalom runs in Levi. But in Killington, back on her home territory of Vermont and before a crowd of 21,000 fans, Shiffrin placed 13th in the giant slalom—the worst finish she’s ever had at Killington, where she’d podiumed in seven of nine World Cup races. Then she came in fifth in the slalom.
She could have crumbled, could have pitied herself, could have been anything less than effervescent on behalf of the two skiers who did share gold. Not this time. “It’s not really even disappointing. It just didn’t happen today,” Shiffrin said after the slalom. “And the crowd was still incredible, and the rain held off ’til after the first race, and Wendy [Holdener] and Anna [Swenn Larsson] got their first win. There are some days where you just have to say, like, ‘Look at them on the Jumbotron. She is so happy!’ You can’t be disappointed.”
She nabbed a podium in one of her next three races, but it wasn’t quite the comeback her fans had been hoping for. And it didn’t mean anything for The Record.
Then came St. Moritz in December.
Shiffrin was slated for three races at the Swiss resort, all speed events. Historically, Shiffrin has focused on the more technical events of slalom and giant slalom, which feature quicker turns and lower speeds. But she’s become more of an overall contender over the last several years, winning her first downhill back in 2017 and her first super-G in 2018.
Even so, Shiffrin wasn’t totally sure that she’d enter the downhill portions. It’s always a trade-off, especially for a skier who still sees herself as a technical racer; doing a downhill or super-G course not only uses energy, but can result in a season-ending injury.
Then she watched the video of one of her training runs. “I was like ‘Oh, I’ll just go for it,’ and you know, it’s one more day on the skis. I’m not going to get any other [speed] training, and energy-wise, I feel good enough to do it,” Shiffrin says. “I think that kind of mentality catapulted through even the last couple of weeks. Just, like, ‘I don’t have much to lose by doing it’.”
The low-pressure approach worked. Despite having “really very minimal expectations,” Shiffrin just missed the podium in one of the downhills, coming in fourth. And then she won the super-G.
It was the start of a streak—five in a row. When the streak ended at Kranjska Gora’s first giant slalom race last week, where she came in sixth, she was matter-of-fact. “I felt like my skiing was quite good, but there’s a difference between good skiing and the fastest skiing,” she said. “We’ll look at the video and see what I can adjust, if I can adjust it.”
Which is exactly what she did. At the second GS the next day, her runs were beautiful: technically near-perfect, aggressive, powerful, so smooth and unflappable that she made attacking the icy, slippery course look easy. (In that sense, you can almost forgive some of Shiffrin’s critics for expecting her to win nonstop—she’s a victim of how easy she can make it all look.)
It was her 82nd victory. Shiffrin was now tied with Vonn. Four more and she’d be even with Stenmark. Five and she’d be the most successful ski racer in history.
In the finishing area, she was bubbling over with joy. But not because of The Record. Because of how she skied.
“I want to see the run. I hope someday I can ski like that again. It was maybe the best skiing I ever did in a GS.”
Still, one reporter asked, how important is it, exactly, for Shiffrin to break—or reset—it?
Shiffrin laughed. “Maybe at some point people will stop talking about it,” she said. “I'm trying not to think about it, honestly. I’m really trying not to change my goals for this record.”
Not least of all, she says, because the goalpost is constantly shifting. If she wins 83, or 86, or 87 races, next everyone will ask if she can win 100.
Given how the media and the public were discussing her career just a few short months ago, it’s all a little disorienting.
“You know, I come back to ski racing [after my dad’s death] and everyone’s like, ‘Well, she just lost it, and she’s probably not going to win again,’” Shiffrin says. “Then flash forward to now, and it’s like, ‘Whoa, she’s going to win 100 races.’ Like, guys, shit … Is it ever gonna be enough? No, it’s not. But that’s how it goes. I’m walking into that fire willingly.”
Amanda Ruggeri is a multi-award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Switzerland. She writes on topics including science, travel, and sometimes ski racing. You can find her at @amanda_ruggeri on Twitter.
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