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Mikaela Shiffrin On Racing Her First Alpine World Cup In 300 Days, Resiliency, & What To Name A Possible Fifth Reindeer

By Peggy Shinn | Nov. 19, 2020, 2:34 p.m. (ET)

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.

it’s not always about being strong. It’s just as much about moments where you don’t feel strong or can’t get out of bed or just want to give up.

Mikaela Shiffrin

This summer, Shiffrin helped launch the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund—to help fund athletes during the pandemic, with the goal of raising $1.5 million that would be matched dollar-for-dollar by six families.

At first, the project was a sad one for Shiffrin—sad that her friends and teammates were suffering during the pandemic and sad that her dad was no longer with around. But as other athletes began sharing their stories of resiliency after injuries and other hardships, Shiffrin began to feel hope.

“It turned this campaign to raise money into so much more than just a campaign to raise money,” she said. “It’s like the cherry on the cake that we actually get to distribute these funds to help athletes during this really difficult time.”

It also helped change her definition of resiliency. Before the horrors of 2020—and even late 2019, when her beloved grandmother died—Shiffrin thought resiliency was reserved for strong people who could get through any hardship.

Now she knows resiliency is part of being a human.

“Everyone has to experience some level of resilience in life,” she said. “And it’s not always about being strong. It’s just as much about moments where you don’t feel strong or can’t get out of bed or just want to give up.”

In other words, resiliency is as much about bouncing back as it is continuing to live—“rolling out of bed some days.”

Shiffrin planned to return to racing at the Soelden World Cup a month ago. But her back acted up—a constant bugaboo for many ski racers whose torsos constantly counteract the torque of carved turns. A doctor in Soelden advised her to rest, that racing might risk more permanent injury.

So she returned home to Colorado again. Back on snow on October 30 at U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s official training venue at Copper Mountain, she was grateful for the snow conditions and the fact that she could train so close to home.

Although she has no expectations for how she will race on Saturday, Shiffrin has plans for what she will name her fifth reindeer, should he or she join the herd this year—a herd made up of Ingemar (2019—named after Swedish ski legend Ingemar Stenmark, whose world cup slalom win record she broke last year in Levi), Rudolph (2013), Sven (2016), and Mr. Gru (2018).

“I was talking to the mountain manager at Copper,” said Shiffrin, her warm giggle having returned, “and he said that I should name the reindeer Copper.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Mikaela Shiffrin