Mikaela Shiffrin takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Slalom on November 23, 2019 in Levi Finland.
When Mikaela Shiffrin slides into the starting gate on Saturday, November 21, 2020, for the Levi World Cup slalom, it will be the first time she has raced in 300 days.
It’s a venue in Finland that Shiffrin knows well. She has won the Levi slalom four times—collecting four different reindeer (the winner’s prize at Levi).
But since her last race 300 days ago—a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on January 26, 2020, her 66th world cup win—Shiffrin has delved into the deepest depths of despair while also trying to navigate a worldwide pandemic. On February 2, her beloved father passed away after an accident at the family’s home in Colorado.
Shiffrin returned to competition in March 2020 for the world cup races in Åre, Sweden. She wanted to see what it felt like to race and to make some good turns. But the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down. She came home to heal, to train, to confront the unfairness that was happening in the world, to live, and to learn to do all the things that her father once took care of. The past few months, she admitted, have been exhausting.
Now with the opportunity to finally race again—having successfully managed a back problem that kept her from racing in the Soelden World Cup last month—Shiffrin is excited. And a bit jet-lagged.
“I’m excited to race,” she said on Zoom from her hotel in Finland. “I feel like racing is actually going to be a break … like going on vacation, which is not really how I used to think about it, but right now, I’m so grateful to be here, and I’m really excited to just get in the start gate again and ski some slalom.”
The dominant slalom skier in the world for the past eight years, 25-year-old Shiffrin has no expectations for this weekend’s races.
“I don’t really think it’s possible to actually have expectations for the race given everything that’s happened to all of us athletes and to me personally,” said Shiffrin, who arrived in Finland on Monday this week. “But I want to ski well, which includes skiing fast, and I know that I can [ski fast], so it all boils down to race day. And if I can wake up!”
Shiffrin has not trained with or competed against any of her peers since last January, so she does not know how her skiing compares. Since she returned to snow a couple of weeks ago, she has focused only on slalom.
“My goal is just to make some good turns, ideally make every turn a good turn and hopefully, it’s fast,” she said.
Like the other athletes on the alpine world cup tour, Shiffrin is happy for the opportunity to compete this weekend—as much of Europe and the U.S. struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone on the world cup is tested for COVID-19 regularly, and Shiffrin doesn’t see the mask or social distancing mandates as a burden.
“I’m just happy to be here and get a little bit of fresh air,” she said, then added that she does not get bored easily. With a love of napping, she quipped, “I just fall asleep.”
Shiffrin’s gratitude stands in contrast to the devastation she felt last February, when she and her mother returned from Europe in time to say good-bye to Jeff Shiffrin, who lay in a hospital bed in Denver. The Shiffrin family is close, and Jeff had always held an important role in his daughter’s life and career, helping Mikaela develop a solid philosophy (“be nice, think first, have fun”) and manage important details—like to watch out for an encroaching pandemic. He also maintained the family’s finances.
At home last February after her dad died, Shiffrin didn’t ski, workout, sleep, or even eat—“or do anything that an athlete or even a human should be doing on a daily basis.” She returned to Europe in March 2020 to race because she thought skiing would be therapeutic. She wanted to see what it would feel like to race again now that her world had moved significantly, and devastatingly, under her feet.
The pandemic shut down the opportunity to race, so Shiffrin returned home again, and the spring, summer, and fall ended up being “the busiest most stressful time of my life.” On top of figuring out life in a pandemic, she took a crash course in business, finance, and investing.