There were months where Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t want to ski, mixed with weeks where she wondered if she could. There were times, too, that she couldn’t, even if she wanted: canceled events, weather delays, race postponements, a 10-month break, a savage back injury and an unending global pandemic. She needed to grieve. Needed to move forward. Needed to look back. Some days, she wasn’t sure which one. Some days, she tried all three.
She thought about all that at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships last month, after her first race, the Super-G, had netted a bronze medal that meant something different than any race she had ever won. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she tells SI, over the phone, from Europe. “It’s more of a symbol of, like, I’ve always been good at focusing. But over the last year, that’s something I’ve had to relearn. And it’s still not always there, right?”
This is Mikaela Shiffrin attempting to make sense of Mikaela Shiffrin, an athlete as dominant and introspective as any on the planet—and one who confronted an even more difficult 2020 than her peers. She’s dominant, usually, in the technical, clinical sense—a ski-racing cyborg who also thinks deeply about her life and her performances. Meaning she’s not at all an actual machine—she just plays one on TV screens, barreling down mountains, winning races at a faster clip than anyone ever in her sport. But, “I was never really the athlete who made those heroic moments happen,” she says. “I always just relied on really, really solid preparation, a very methodical process. And then I pulled out a performance like that [in Italy], where, if I were somebody else, I would have felt an incredible inspiration watching it.”
“I never considered myself doing that,” she says. “It was just … extremely emotional. It reminds me that, like, hey, maybe I’m still a pretty good skier.”
As further proof, not that she really needed any, Shiffrin turned in a historic performance at the world championships. She won a gold in the combined, a silver in giant slalom and two bronzes, in that Super-G and in the slalom. The four-medal haul marked her most ever at a world championships, setting an American record and tying or breaking the U.S. marks for most career golds at world championships (six) and most overall medals (nine). For perspective, only three other women have tallied four medals in a single world’s, the last being Anja Pärson back in 2007.
Shiffrin, though, cared less about the hardware and more about what it meant, almost one year after she lost her father, Jeff, who died in an accident at home in Colorado. That was before COVID-19, before the shortened season, before the interrupted training and the life totally upended and the longer stretches overseas, like the Thanksgiving celebrated near a ski slope.
Shiffrin never expected one moment, a snap of the fingers and voilà, she would be back. She continued to train and grieve and process and meditate and play music and write songs about her father, who remains a central influence in her career and life. Some days she felt better, others worse. She had won so often, and made winning look so easy, that sometimes she wondered if everyone else simply believed she would one day just fit back into the outsize expectations she herself had impossibly created. “It’s a lot more catching smoke than people realize,” she says, looking deeply inward. “It’s tangible, but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I’m looking for the right feeling.”
In Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, for the first time in over a year, she found it. Part of that stemmed from letting go. Not of her grief but of her rigorous training regimen, or the idea that she could train as she had in previous dominant seasons. So Shiffrin looked at her schedule a few months back and saw she might have a small break before the world championships to train for the Super-G. By “small break,” she meant four days. Not four months, not all season, like most of her competitors. Four days. And yet after the first run and throughout the first day, skiing a type of style she hadn’t practiced in forever produced an unexpected emotion. It felt … fun. She made progress. Decided to enter. Won that bronze. Thought of her father and how much it would have meant to him. She had taken the exact kind of calculated risk he would have encouraged, and he would have been standing there at the bottom of the hill, snapping photographs of her historic week.
That’s how her life will be for now, and for Shiffrin, that’s O.K. She still breaks down in tears often, sometimes on the morning of her races, as she writes songs about her dad. She cried after finishing fourth in one race earlier this season, only it wasn’t about her result; it was a particularly emotional day from the moment she woke up. She set up the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund in his honor and has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. She leaned on her “incredible” support system, from her mom, Eileen, to her coaches and trainers.
The goal isn’t to recreate what made Shiffrin so dominant before. It’s to create something else, a freer, still technically masterful skier, one who can be cyborg-adjacent and creative, introspective and yet not as tightly wound on race day. That version of Mikaela Shiffrin could be even better than the original one. She just won’t magically appear that one way overnight.
“It’s going to take time,” she says, dropping words that seemed foreign even a month ago. Enjoyable. Exciting. Really fun.
Imagine if she could carry that to the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year. She already has 14 medals in 18 events at the world championships and Olympic Games. “At least I’ve done it,” she says. “It gives you the feeling like, Maybe I could do this again.” And again. And again. This is, after all, Mikaela Shiffrin. It might look different, her racing, her preparation, her life now. The bridge, of course, being her dominance, from everything that happened before she paused her career to everything that’s happening again now that she has resumed it and returned to elite form.