“I just wish I could feel it forever,” she explained recently after one such run down the mountain.
For the broader ski world, there was a glimpse of the natural order of things Monday, when Shiffrin again found herself atop the medals podium at the world championships in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy. She won the women’s Alpine combined event in blazing fashion, rewriting the U.S. record books in the process. Shiffrin now has six career world titles and has won nine world championship medals, moving her ahead of recently retired Ted Ligety, the five-time world champ, and Lindsey Vonn, who reached the podium at eight world championships during her stellar racing career.
Shiffrin, 25, will probably add to her haul with two more events to come this week in Italy: the slalom and giant slalom. But the first part of these world championships has offered both validation and relief. Shiffrin won bronze last week in the super-G, her first time racing a speed event in more than 380 days. Shiffrin is known for her wide range — she is the only skier to win World Cup races in all six race disciplines — but less than a year out from the Beijing Olympics, there’s been uncertainty cast over her speed events.
Before this month, her last speed events — super-G and downhill — were in January 2020 in Bansko, Bulgaria. A week later, her father died following an accident back home in Colorado. Shiffrin boarded a plane, cutting short her race season, and little has felt normal since.
When she returned to competition in November, she wasn’t sure what to expect. Shiffrin was still grieving as she packed her skis and flew halfway across the world.
“There have definitely been some really difficult days that just feel like — I know going home isn’t an option, but I just want to go back to bed and, like, hide under the covers,” she said in an interview.
Slowly, the good days started to outnumber the bad, the racing has felt more comfortable, and the race finishes have been more promising. She won a giant slalom event in France, then a slalom race last month in Austria and targeted four events at these world championships.
Any World Cup season can feel isolating, hopping from town to town, far from home, family or friends available only on a phone or laptop. It’s more challenging by several degrees this season with coronavirus protocols in place that limit interactions with teammates and coaches.
“This is the first time I’ve even been around the speed team at all this season, and we can’t really be together. We can’t have dinner together. We can’t even have our team meetings together,” Shiffrin said. “It’s like, ‘All right, well, I guess I’ll send you a text message and wave from my window.’ ”
But she has support as she navigates the abnormal racing season. Her mother, Eileen, still helps coach Shiffrin, and the two travel and room together.
They didn’t know what to expect from Shiffrin this season, mentally or physically. Every skier’s preparations had been impacted by the pandemic, which closed mountains, curtailed travel and limited opportunities. Normally, Shiffrin would’ve trained specifically on speed events for a week in the spring, two or three more in the summer and a couple more in September before traveling to Europe, then squeezed in two or three more before the first World Cup event.
That wasn’t an option this year. She was able to find some training for the technical events — slalom and giant slalom — but had no time on her longer skis.
“I knew I had to pick and prioritize,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk of racing speed if I don’t have a minimum level of preparation. There’s an innate risk in doing it, and it’s just, like, stupidly dangerous. I mean, you’re skiing at 80 miles an hour, and it’s like: ‘I haven’t done this in a year. No, I’m not going to do that.’ ”
She wasn’t giving up on the speed events forever — certainly not with the Winter Games just around the corner — but was worried about the impact of missing a full year of practice and competition. Shiffrin had intended to do at least four races at the 2018 Olympics, but difficult conditions prompted her to pull out of the super-G in PyeongChang. She’d prefer not to rule anything out for next year.
“I want to be in a place where I can do all of it,” she said. “But in the back of my mind, it was like, I’m never going to be able to get speed back. And it was a little bit depressing because I was having so much fun and I had to take this astronomical step backwards. It felt like being demoted — like I was demoting myself.”
After a year without racing super-G, she was able to find four training days and felt the world championships schedule gave her enough flexibility to give it a shot. On Thursday, Shiffrin turned in a third-place performance that left her ecstatic, even though a late mistake probably cost her a shot at gold.
And then in Monday’s combined, she turned in the third-fastest super-G run, just 0.06 seconds off the pace, and then turned in the best slalom time, a full 0.52 seconds better than anyone else. Her combined time was 0.86 seconds faster than the rest of the field.
This week she’ll race the giant slalom, the event that brought her Olympic gold in 2018, and the slalom, where she’s won the past four world titles.
She doesn’t anticipate racing downhill again until next season, but with the Beijing Games inching closer Shiffrin is finally finding some comfort and hints of normalcy. She went to PyeongChang and was rocked by schedule changes and ski conditions that took a heavy mental toll. Everything that’s happened since then has reinforced to Shiffrin that some things are beyond control but they need not limit her.
“One thing I feel better at now is just not freaking out when you just don’t really know. I experienced it in South Korea, and I let it exhaust me. I had no idea how not to,” she said. “But I’m just trying to go with the flow right now and focus on what’s right in front of me.”