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Mikaela Shiffrin Is Focused on the Process

After the sudden death of her father, and faced with the crushing weight of expectations, the dominant skier of her generation has recalibrated her idea of Olympic success heading into Beijing.
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The Shiffrins discovered the lyrics on a wedding program in the pocket of an old tuxedo. They had been printed 25 years ago, read aloud at the ceremony and forgotten.

Mikaela Shiffrin—easily the most accomplished competitive skier still active; perhaps, one day, the greatest athlete to ever fly down a mountain—carried that program as she walked unsteadily toward a microphone in September. Dozens of guests watched, worried, wondering how she might handle the enormity involved in another wedding, this one notable both for who was there – and for who wasn’t.

She held the paper up, and tried to focus on the lyrics from John Denver. She doubted she could say them without crying, but knew she had no choice other than to try. She took a deep breath and began reading Perhaps Love.

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Perhaps love is like a resting place/
A shelter from the storm/
It exists to give you comfort …

Her father, Jeff, had chosen those words for the sentiment they captured. He loved John Denver, and the poetic lens through which Denver’s lyrics explained the world.

It is there to keep you warm/
And in those times of trouble/
When you are most alone/
The memory of love will bring you home

If only Jeff were sitting in that audience. If only he could have heard Mikaela. He wasn’t there, which explained the tears dripping down her cheeks. Her voice trembled. Her hands shook. Nineteen months had passed since the worst day, each subsequent one defined by a duality borne from grief: everything moving too fast/everyone moving so slow. Jeff had died in an accident at the family home in Colorado in February 2020. His son, Taylor, had stumbled upon the dusty tuxedo, finding the program in a pocket. Now, after all that time without their bedrock, Taylor was getting married, Mikaela was preparing for her third Olympics, and grief continued to exact a staggering toll.

Jeff was more than a ski instructor, more than a father to Taylor and Mikaela, more than a husband to Eileen. Jeff was the family’s real-life Siri, with an answer for everything from training logistics to travel plans to nights like this one.

Oh, love to some is like a cloud
To some as strong as steel

The wedding continued, because all nights must, whether the Shiffrins stand on solid or treacherous emotional terrain, for humdrum days or momentous occasions. They missed Jeff, but chose to celebrate him underneath blue skies and a bright sun, at a venue that showcased the Rocky Mountains, his favorite view in the world. They could feel his presence at the ceremony, where Mikaela had taken her maid-of-honor duties as seriously her Olympic aims, packing an overstuffed bridal-emergency suitcase with a sewing kit, snacks, extra shoes and even a beautiful, flowing white dress in the event of any unfortunate stains.

After Taylor’s fiancé, Kristiana Oslund, became his bride, she gleefully announced, “I’m finally a Shiffrin!”

For some a way of living
For some a way to feel

Mikaela Shiffrin can trace her five-ring obsession back to the 2002 Olympics, hosted by Salt Lake City. She was 6 and watching the races on TV. One skier, a young, daring, soon-to-be-superstar in Bode Miller, captured her attention, and not for his collecting two silver medals but for how he reacted after botching his attempt at a third.

After a blistering first run in the slalom competition, Miller needed only to complete his second attempt with a decent time. But instead of exercising caution, he pushed even harder, went even faster. When a ski caught an edge, he veered off course, missing a gate. His reaction inspired a young skier. He hiked back up the mountain, determined to finish, revealing an Olympic-caliber spirit. “Even at a young age,” Shiffrin says, “I could relate to that.” She soon scribbled a dream into her diary. I want to be the best skier in the world.

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In 2005, she spied Flying Downhill, a documentary that centered on Miller’s life and career. She estimates she watched the film in excess of 300 times, drawing additional inspiration with each viewing.

By 2010, when the Games took place in Vancouver, Canada, Shiffrin had become an Olympic devotee. She watched every event and dreamed—had actual dreams—of standing at the medal ceremony as the Star-Spangled Banner played and she cried with her hand over her heart. The dreams were both vivid and, by that point, realistic. After watching one race, a friend turned to Shiffrin and told her she needed to wear waterproof mascara when she triumphed—the assumption, based on her prodigious start, being that, of course, one day, she would.

She made the U.S. national team the next cycle, only to realize that ski racing was unlike the majority of Olympic sports. There are no national competitions to determine who makes the team; instead, competitors are chosen based on their World Cup standing. No remember-it-forever moment in front of a raucous crowd. No call where long-anticipated news is breathlessly delivered. Just a quick scan of the standings. Without the fanfare, she didn’t celebrate, and Perhaps Love summed that feeling, too.

And some say love is everything
And some say they don't know

The magnitude, the medals she could win, even a basic realization—the Olympics—didn’t fully sink in until Shiffrin flew to Russia. For hours, she played music, turning up the volume in her headphones, jamming, zoning out and feeling “pensive,” eyes scanning the landscape far below. She started to see, in her mind, the glorious week ahead: competing, dominating, winning, celebrating. As she pushed through that week, every step “felt like Déjà vu,” like, she says, “I’ve already lived this.”

Shiffrin did compete, did dominate, did snag gold in the slalom, becoming the youngest-ever champion in that event’s Olympic history. She didn’t wear waterproof mascara to the medal ceremony, because she didn’t mind the tears. She would turn 19 the next month.

As Shiffrin’s Olympic pursuits gained momentum, the tenor of her dreams changed, because her success only raised the expectations. She would cross the finish line in second place, just behind the winning time, or come in fourth, thisclose to the medal stand.

At least Jeff was there, always, providing comfort, support and the occasional John Denver listening session, with Perhaps Love in regular rotation on the family stereo.

If I should live forever/
And all my dreams come true/
My memories of love will be of you

After he died, Shiffrin fought through grief and back spasms. But regardless of how any particular day went, however deep the mental or physical toll extended, she spent her nights in the same place: lying on the couch, remote in hand, water nearby, binge-watching the Olympics taking place in Tokyo.

Along with the much of the world, Shiffrin watched as gymnastics star Simone Biles pulled out of several events, citing her mental health. Unlike the rest of the world, Shiffrin could relate to Biles and the toxic bubble she competed in, from the anticipation that balloons every four years for the Olympics, to reaching unparalleled success, to dominance raising already-heightened expectations. She knew that rare athletes who possess generational talent—like her and Biles—needed to care more for themselves, regardless of how that might be interpreted. If they didn’t, the wrong headspace could cause more damage than a broken leg.

Shiffrin arrived at that empathy through her second Olympics, which were held in South Korea in 2018. She planned to compete in all five individual events for two distinct disciplines, speed and technique—the rarest, most daring feat in ski racing. If she won three medals, she would become the first American competitor to do so, accomplishing what Miller almost had.

Upon arrival in South Korea, Shiffrin carried the weight of expectations along with her luggage, made worse by the dizzying logistics inherent in her schedule. High winds postponed the races, forcing organizers to compress the competition. Three events scheduled for a six-day window—giant slalom, slalom and super-G—were instead held in half the time. The wind never relented, leading to additional delays. Shiffrin still triumphed in GS, but her win exponentially increased her obligations. She got home late, went to bed even later and woke up at 5 a.m.

Thus began a dreaded domino effect. She finished fourth in the slalom – just like in her nightmares, eight-hundredths away from another medal. Tired, overwhelmed, she pulled out of the super-G and the downhill. She did race in the combined, summoning the fortitude necessary for the rebound that netted her a silver.

A performance that could have been exulted was framed, instead, as a failure. Despite competitors with more open schedules and more time to rest, the inclement weather, the stops and starts and heavy doses of criticism for only winning two medals, she had gone to the Olympics. She had won, pulled out and comeback. She had medaled again. Didn’t that show strength? Wouldn’t every other skier in the field beg for such a “letdown?”

Worse yet, when Shiffrin stumbled upon the unavoidable negativity online, she started to believe the worst of all the noise. The gist: she had choked. “The disappointment from those failures feels incredibly real,” she says. “Even now.”

She pauses briefly, on the phone from Europe. Her voice softens. In 2018, she had forgotten one of Jeff’s primary lessons, a notion he reinforced by asking questions of his ski-racing children. “Are you happy?” “Is it fun?”

“I only came to view that differently more recently,” she says. “I spent a lot of time there arguing in my own brain about how hard it was, and how unfair it felt. All I did was waste energy, thinking ridiculous thoughts.”

After months of dwelling, after all the vitriol—don’t come homeyou’re a failureretire—having “felt like I never felt before,” Shiffrin eventually resolved to “never feel that way again.”

And some say love is holding on/
And some say letting go

After PyeongChang, Shiffrin had to change her mindset around the Olympics.

After PyeongChang, Shiffrin had to change her mindset around the Olympics.

Back in Colorado last September, the Shiffrins plowed ahead minus their multi-tasker. “Down one man,” Eileen says. To compensate and distract, they packed the wedding playlist with upbeat tunes, hoping to encourage movement. They hired a deejay to hype up the crowd. They practiced dance routines after training sessions, learning swing, ballroom and modern techniques, the process very Jeff, exactly him. They spent weeks choosing the perfect songs. Mikaela being Mikaela, the family’s active, decorated, famous achiever, she choreographed something she hoped to perform with the crowd’s participation.

In another sense, the routine stoked an ongoing internal conflict. Skier vs. Self. She had returned to the slopes, slowly and uncertainly, then to the victory podium, then back into her assault of the history books. She qualified for the Games, despite a back injury that limited her training, hoping to add to her three total medals and perhaps snag a third—or fourth, or fifth—gold. But to have any realistic chance at success, she needed a clear mind, a healthy body and strength she did not have but would need to summon.

Like at her brother’s wedding.

As Mikaela fretted about her dance number, she thought back to something a fan had sent after her father died, while training on mountains and in studios. The message read, simply, You grieve as much as you love.

Those words invoked a comparison that spoke to both her career without him and her fraught Olympic experiences thus far—
"fraught,” in this instance, relative to her own impossible standards, which she continued to re-define.

You hurt as much as you care.

Changing her Olympic mindset took time, energy and conscious effort after the flop that wasn’t in South Korea. Shiffrin stopped arguing with those who ignored the context, who failed to understand. She didn’t want her explanations to be interpreted as whiny excuses, and to do that, she needed to halt the conversation.

Shiffrin ranks among the most introspective athletes in sports, and she can sound like she’s trying to convince herself that she’s in the neighborhood of OK. She describes South Korea as “an incredible accomplishment” she’s “proud of.” But even if that’s true—and she admits it can’t be, not always—everyone else remembers. Most tie the “anticlimactic” Olympics to her spectacular 2018-19, when she made 25 World Cup starts and nabbed an incredible 17 wins. They then tie that season to the time she took to mourn, and her uneven return to competitive skiing (16 starts, three wins in 2020-21) that followed.

As in South Korea, context matters. In 2020-21, she lacked focus, struggled to find energy, operated in an understandable fog for months. She felt exactly as she had vowed not to, but for entirely different reasons. As she struggled, Shiffrin pulled out of speed events at competitions, recalling Biles and the competitive ecosystem they shared.

There’s no obvious ski racing equivalent of the “twisties,” the psychological conundrum that befuddles gymnasts like “the yips” transform simple tasks that golfers and baseball players have done their whole lives—a routine throw to first, a five-foot gimme putt—into impossible aims. What’s similar is the danger for an elite athlete stuck in a hazardous mind-frame. Ski racers speed down mountains at upwards of 80 miles an hour, while turning, twisting and launching off jumps. They land 100 feet down a mountain. It’s foggy, or cloudy, limiting visibility. They’re relying on muscle memory, unable to see more than a few feet ahead, moving so fast that what they can see is a blur, at best. “If your head is not in the right place,” says Eileen, a lifer in the sport, “that becomes dangerous.”

Her daughter would stand in starting gates and forget where she was, unable to remember simple things like the location of the first turn. She would “black out” while competing, her memory blank when a run ended. At one race, darkness descended, and the view down an icy, steep slope seemed perilous. “I’m not ready for this,” Shiffrin told her mom and her coaches. “I should not be doing this. I’m not there mentally.”

Shiffrin was exactly like Biles in those harrowing moments. Worse yet, as her time to prepare for the Olympics dwindled and COVID-19 raged, her grief flamed at unexpected times. She began to wonder: would she be able to compete in China? And, if she did, would this Déjà vu be more like Sochi or South Korea?

With time, she uncovered ways to cope. She read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B, and the subtitle—Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy—resonated. Like Sandberg, the billionaire former Facebook executive whose husband died when she was only 48, Shiffrin could turn an event that threatened ruin into her way forward; not into an ideal future, which would have included her father. But into, at least, a more palatable one. Once her thinking changed, everything else— relationships, races, getting out of the bed each morning—became easier. Eventually, she deployed that mindset shift toward her only lingering career “disappointment”—the Olympics—and that left her with only one choice for Beijing.

She would again attempt the rarest Olympic schedule; would again compete in five races, if possible; would again try to seize the history that slipped with Miller’s ski.

In 2020, Shiffrin struggled to find energy and recall basic things while racing, until she heeded her dad’s advice: process over outcome.

In 2020, Shiffrin struggled to find energy and recall basic things while racing, until she heeded her dad’s advice: process over outcome.

When the opening ceremonies takes place in Beijing on Feb. 4, millions will go full Shiffrin and sink into their couches. In the days that follow, the results of the latest clash between a skier and herself will be revealed. The difference now lies in Shiffrin’s view, how it moved and where it moved to.

In recent months, she leaned into another tenet her father always emphasized, albeit one transformed by grief and growth: Process Over Outcome. She focused on skiing fast rather than winning races, on what she could control, on what drew her to the slopes as a child. Her results progressed in lockstep. She returned to the speed events, no longer fearful of the mountains, or the conditions, able to remember turns and runs.

In late November, she tied the record for most World Cup wins in a single discipline, matching legendary Ingemar Stenmark with her 46th-overall slalom victory. Stenmark had held that mark for more than three decades. Shiffrin equaled it by age 26, and, for proof of her new focus, she wasn’t aware until after she competed.

If the ugliness of success had clouded her Olympic ambitions, the beauty she uncovered in the struggle she never wanted had fortified her return. She viewed a recent nine-and-1/2-hour drive to a competition as a rest day, because Eileen was behind the wheel. She looked at the speed races she managed to compete in as enough training for the Games. She didn’t consider packing her schedule with 10-straight World Cup stops from Nov. 20 to Jan. 11 a burden, but rather an opportunity to optimize her chances. Those simple, minor shifts in mindset helped her let go of the weight—and led to her first speed-event victory in almost two years.

Recent months did more than transform Shiffrin. They also unearthed a pivotal twist: her “failures,” anguish, mourning, comeback and mindset will inform her latest Olympic bid. She will still face the same logistical puzzle, and in an area of China, almost 100 miles north of Beijing, known for, of all things, high winds. But she can win. And, for now, that’s enough.

And some say love is everything/

She now believes Denver meant self-love, too. Of all the reasons to believe Shiffrin is poised to claim Olympic history, her family members start with her boyfriend, ski champion Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. The pair met on the circuit, but didn’t begin dating until after Shiffrin’s father died. “Alex came into her life at a time when we all really needed it,” Eileen says, noting how Kilde’s “optimism” was like medicine. Gradually, Eileen saw the fog lift. “It was nice to see [Mikaela] smile again,” she says. “She’s in a way better place.”

Reasons for confidence abound. The World Cup victories. The four medals at the World Championships. All those months spent in wobbling uncertainty, at once heartbreaking and potentially helpful for the ambiguity ahead. Increased fitness levels. A healthy back. Her team. Everything Shiffrin needed has fallen into place.

Still, Shiffrin did lose time to repair her spasming back. She did take time to begin healing her broken heart. She was further distracted by logistics, everything Jeff normally handled. Meanwhile, the field around her strengthened, and it will be deeper in China than ever before. She will race against a true rival (Petra Vlhova of Slovakia) for the first time since Lindsey Vonn retired in 2019.

And some say they don't know/

Those weighing whether Shiffrin will win in China are asking the wrong questions. It’s not: is she bettered positioned to win more races? Not: can she match or exceed Julia Mancuso’s mark for most career Olympic medals won by a female American skier (four)? Not: can Shiffrin build on a successful Games to pass Stenmark and Vonn for most career victories (86 and 82, respectively, compared her ascending total of 73)?

There’s a better, more pertinent query that speaks to her evolution: Is she better equipped to handle the Olympics, regardless of how she fares?

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Shiffrin now knows to expect only the unexpected. Whether she can depends on how far she has come. Asked if she can enjoy these Olympics more after everything, because of everything, she pauses. Maybe. But maybe not. “I know that I’m more prepared,” she says. “That I want to compete again. That I’m ready to take this on, because I see the world much more clearly.”

What’s crucial is the process; and the support, from Kilde, from Taylor, from her mom; and making these Olympics about Skier vs. Other Skiers. “She knows now that losing a race is not the same level of loss as we’ve experienced,” Eileen says. “She has learned not to take things too seriously.” Self-included.

Keep grieving. Be happy. Or what’s the point?

As Taylor watched his sister read John Denver at his wedding ceremony, he started to cry. He kept thinking—this is cathartic, monumental, a moment of absolute elation that needs to be remembered. “It was a perfect portrayal of what we were going through,” he says. “And a reminder that, for all the pain, we can still have transformative moments in our lives.” Grief remained. It always will. But those words, on that day, showed the Shiffrins they could be sad and move forward, all at once, which made their grief feel a little less heavy, which made tackling it a little less exhausting.

If I should live forever/
And all my dreams come true/
My memories of love will be of you

Only the dance routine remained. After weeks filled with worry and practice, Mikaela bounced into the reception, having found time to teach upwards of 15 guests what she wanted to happen next. She shimmed. So did they. She twisted her body, rotated her arms, slid backward and jumped forward. As the guests she taught the routine to followed along, the rest of the crowd rushed to join in. “The whole thing,” Taylor says, “became a flash mob.”

Shiffrin would post that moment on her Instagram page, and the clip would go viral. But that wasn’t the most important part, nor the most relevant one. As the wedding continued, the guests never left the dance floor, everyone crowding together, soaked in sweat.

The wedding unfolded like Jeff had planned it—without incident. Kilde’s competition schedule meant he could not attend. Like Jeff, he was there in spirit, Eileen says. As she watched her son dance with his bride, and spied her daughter’s elation, it seemed OK to move forward, however unsteadily, toward everything the Shiffrins had put on hold. Eileen allowed herself a moment. Right there, right then. “Our job is done, Jeff,” she whispered. “We did good.”

So began the cycle toward another Olympics. Knowing they could move forward allowed the Shiffrins to consider how. And just by thinking about how, they began to move. Those steps mattered in September and will matter in August, when Mikaela Shiffrin hopes to obtain better results by caring less about them.

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