Mikeala Shiffrin is only human. That was the major headline circulating the ski racing news world last week after she finished 17th in the Courchevel giant slalom, and Shiffrin is incredibly frustrated by that. Using her humanness as an excuse for her performance is something she can’t quite wrap her head around. Watching her ski in Lienz, Austria on Saturday, was like watching a fallen hero stand back up after they’ve been knocked down. The fire and the renewed drive she was feeling to not only perform but to win, was apparent.
Shiffrin skied both her first and second run with a lust that seemed to be lacking in her last race. She carried visible speed, tearing through sections of the course where most women lost time, her turns crisp, clean, and meticulously executed. From a viewing standpoint, there was no obvious competition. It wasn’t a question of if she would win, but rather by how much. She crossed the finish line a total of 1.36 seconds ahead of the rest of the competition, which is miles in ski racing terms. After slowing to a stop, she collapsed, a move reminiscent of her World Championship win in Are, Sweden after she fought through illness to compete on the world stage.
This time around, Shiffrin did not collapse from bodily fatigue/exhaustion sparked by illness. On Saturday, she sank into herself knowing a massive emotional weight had just lifted off of her shoulders. Her biggest fear as an athlete and as a skier is the fear of one day no longer having it in her to be the best in the world. For Shiffrin, winning in Lienz proved to both herself, and to the masses, that she is still the best in the world and she’s not slowing down any time soon. Winning, she said, was a huge relief.
“I think I’m one of those athletes that if I have a bad race, I really can’t let it go,” said Shiffrin. “For sure it’s about winning, but it’s not just that. To ski the way that I skied [in Courchevel] and think that it could be okay enough to make the podium…I have to reset. You can’t go into a race thinking you deserve something or expecting something.”
After having a near-perfect season last year, the pressure was on coming into 2019/20 for Shiffrin to continue onward towards ski racing greatness in winning fashion. Fans and followers of the sport know just how unusual it is to see Shiffrin finish a race outside of the top ten, let alone the top five. For her to end the day in 17th at a venue that she has dominated over the years shook viewers and Shiffrin herself. But one bad day surely could not be the indicator of Shiffrin “losing her touch”. That’s not her style. If anything, one bad race was going to make her hone in on the details – of her skiing, of her equipment, of her mindset – and force her to work out some kinks in her plan that maybe she didn’t know she had.
Shiffrin opted to skip the speed series in Val d’Isere (prior to the races being canceled) to create some space in her program for her to reset. This strategic move opened up her week, allowing room for multiple training sessions that she said were much needed in order for her to move forward. Not just from Courchevel, but from her 2018/19 season and the ominous expectations that have followed her ever since she made history as the only ski racer to ever win 17 times in one season.
“This season has been really, really difficult,” said Shiffrin. “I keep saying I don’t have any expectations but it’s hard to compare what happened last season to what’s going on this season. Nobody has ever won [17 races] before, and that might never happen again, and I need to just focus on my skiing and let that go.”
“This last week was a lot of learning, again, to put those expectations aside,” she continued. “The amount of hurt that I felt after Courchevel, not that I came in 17th but that I skied to deserve 17th, and that I just wasn’t doing my job the way I want to be doing it…I had to change a lot of things last week, and also change my attitude, coming into this race not expecting to win, and knowing I don’t deserve to win.”
Saturday’s win in Lienz made a statement. Shiffrin is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain a high quality of skiing, as well as high quality of self.
“It sounds a little bit stupid to say that last week was a tough time because I’ve already had such a great season and it’s just one bad race, and that’s ski racing,” explained Shiffrin. “But I care. We all care. My coaches and the people around me, they see the human, they see the person behind the results and the statistics. So when I have a tough race they look at it and they know the pain because they feel it too. That’s the biggest thing motivating all of us is working hard enough to never feel that pain again.”
Shiffrin’s week of introspection conveniently fell around the holidays. Her parents, Jeff and Eileen, had had a game plan to fly to Europe to spend time with their daughter for Christmas amongst the craziness of her program. Eileen typically is a regular on Shiffrin’s staff, as a coach and as her mother. Since the passing of her own mother, the mother-daughter team had to make a tough decision. Eileen would step back from the tour and spend some more time at home in the states, watching as her 24-year-old Olympic champion took on the World Cup circuit without her mother by her side. Having her family around during this time Shiffrin said was key to the learning experience.
“Having [my parents] here over Christmas and during this time was so healing,” said Shiffrin. “It was really, really important for me. It’s a little bit tough to explain that relationship I have with them but they give me strength, my mom especially. My mom gives me strength that I just can’t get from myself, and that was a big thing today.”
Shiffrin knows that there are bigger things happening in the world outside of ski racing. In her post-race interviews, she expressed frustration with her emotions because a majority of them were stemming from her disappointment in Courchevel. But as an Olympian and as a World Cup ski racer, Shiffrin also knows that skiing, and skiing well, is her job. At the end of the day, she just wants to excel at what she has dedicated her life to do. She’s not immune to criticism or the pressure of unrealistic expectations, and she’s doing her best to drown out the noise and keep her eyes focused on her dream of being the best ski racer in the world. But sometimes the noise seeps in. As an athlete, she can’t help but wonder if she is failing because she is not ending 2019 as gloriously (by comparison) as she had started it.
“The problem isn’t to compare this season to last season,” she explained. “The problem is when I start to think that if I don’t win 17 races this season, then I’ve failed. That’s when the pressure is just too much because it’s an unreasonable expectation. Everyone’s talking about this incredible season I had last year, and so far I’ve had an incredible season this year but in a lot of ways I’ve failed compared to that. As humans, we all want to just get through life and do as well as we can and hopefully get better at what we do. For me, what I’ve been feeling is that I’m getting worse even though I’m not and that’s the mental challenge, and that’s a new thing that I’m learning.”
On Sunday the competition continues in Lienz, Austria, as the women compete in the slalom event starting at 10:00 am CET.
- Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): 2:07.31 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
- Marta Bassino (ITA): +1.36 – Salomon/Salomon
- Katharina Leinsberger (AUT): +1.82 – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Federica Brignone (ITA): +1.90 – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Petra Vlhova (SVK): +1.93 – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Mina Fuerst Holtmann (NOR): +2.07 – Voelkl/Dalbello/Marker
- Clara Direz (FRA): +2.11 – Dynastar/Lange/Look
- Tessa Worley (FRA): +2.28 – Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
- Alice Robinson (NZL): +2.54 – Voelkl/Dalbello/Marker
- Sara Hector (SWE): +2.92 – Head/Head/Head
For full race results, click here.