It’s not news that as Mikaela Shriffin has progressed in her career, nerves play more of a role in her skiing – something she was unaccustomed to as a kid. What is new coming into this season is how she has come to terms with idea that she can’t win every race, despite the fact that many expect her too.
“I just continue to tell myself every day that it’s okay to be nervous, and it’s okay to care, and it’s okay that I don’t know how I stack up with all of the other World Cup racers, and it’s okay that I might not win every single race.” With this, she laughs, “I’m gonna live. I’m gonna survive.”
The statement, made nonchalantly in a press conference, marked a shift. After all, many would argue that Shiffrin was quite literally, bred to win. Her parents, Jeff and Eileen, have raised her and her brother, Taylor, based partly on the ideas demonstrated in a book called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. It’s tenet is, in a nutshell, people are not born into greatness but trained into it. Hard work, meticulous practice, and consistent long-term performance outweigh any kind of raw talent.
Shriffin has been known for training on her own and a laser-like, even myopic, focus on skiing. We see that approach shifting now, with more of her time being devoted to peripheral events and her social life, as described in a recent article published in September by Ski Racing, written by Biddle Duke. As these shifts occur and her career evolves, it seems only natural that so too should her state of mind and her relationship with expectations, whether internally or externally created.
As a kid, she said she approached each race with a sense of nonchalance and assurance, which came from a strong sense of confidence in herself and in skill. The quips and quotes from various media outlets and ski fans around the world about her rise to greatness were nothing but white noise. But as she has grown older, the voices have become louder, and nerves have become a factor.
While the statement may be surprising to some, it also refreshing. Even the seemingly invincible athletes of our sport share in our common humanity, everybody gets nervous. Even the best among us are not immune to the negative comments and snide remarks distilled by the media, some even take them to heart.
“There’s’ no way, I could have gone my entire career being completely oblivious to any expectations that anybody had of me,” said Shriffin. “Just naturally as I got older I became a little bit more aware of what the media was saying, or what even friends and family were saying, and all of these little statements that I wouldn’t have even noticed previously, I started to notice. And that’s just a part of growing up.”
So how does Mikaela Shiffrin cope? It’s all about striking a balance, she says. Shiffrin sets her own expectations and does her best to recognize that those expectations are the only ones that matter. She wants to win, but not at the expense of her sanity or her health.
“It’s this performance versus results mentality, and I always ski better when I focus on my performance of my actual turns and my technique versus the results. But I also need the results to drive the fire on the days when it’s really tough and I need that motivation. And it feels good to win,” she said.
Less than one week from the World Cup kickoff in Solden, Austria, Shiffrin is feeling a sense of calm coming into the season than she ever has before.
“I’m more excited for this first race going into this season than I have been in the past. The last couple of years I’ve kind of been feeling like someone has a choke-hold on my neck and the closer we get to the race, the more I feel like they’re choking me. And this year I feel a lot more comfortable with my skiing or just kind of comfortable with the whole process,” Shiffrin said.
Could this sense of comfort stem from a newfound openness to the perks that come with the lifestyle of being a World Champion? Maybe.
Unlike past offseasons, Shiffrin spent time this spring and summer doing the kinds of things we often see from the likes of Lindsey Vonn. She presented at the ESPYs alongside Olympic Figure Skating darling, Adam Rippon, attended the Kids Choice Awards, filmed commercials at mansions in Milan, and participated in high-profile marketing conferences in Southern France. She even took a vacation with her boyfriend Matheiu Faivre (a member of the French Alpine National team) in Martinique, alongside other French racers, such as her competitor Tessa Worley.
All of these things are uncharacteristic of the Shiffrin we’ve seen in the past. But to point to the key difference in her World Cup preparation than we’ve seen in past years – she’s taking more time for herself. And that could just be the best thing for her.
“I can only do my best,” she says. “So if that’s not good enough to win the overall [title], then that’s how it has to be,” she said.
With two overall titles, two Olympic golds, and enough World Cup wins already under her belt at the age of 23 to put her on track to be the winningest racer in history, her best has proven to be more than enough, so far.
“When a season of the tv show ends, you just can’t wait for the next season so you can figure out what happens. But we’re living this TV show and it’s just one of those things everybody’s excited to watch, and I’m just excited to do it, to be a part of it again,” she said.
The original version of this article misstated Mikaela Shiffrin as holding the record for the most World Cup wins in a single season for women. Vreni Schneider of Switzerland is the actual female record holder for most WC wins in a season.