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Mikaela Shiffrin knows pain and loss. Now she’s back on top of the mountain.

Mikaela Shiffrin says of the PyeongChang Olympics: “I felt a way in South Korea that I never, ever wanted to feel again in my skiing career.” (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
17 min

The Olympics are a dream, and the Olympics are a nightmare. Mikaela Shiffrin knows both the euphoria and the angst. If only there were a way to explain it.

She thought for a second.

“Have you seen ‘Stranger Things’?” Shiffrin asked during a FaceTime conversation last month.

Um, what does this have to do with the Olympics?

“Well, the monster in ‘Stranger Things’ is called the Demogorgon,” Shiffrin said. “It’s like the Demogorgon is trying to pound in on your house and your brain and everything. You’re trying your best to keep it out and keep away from that pressure because it’s a really, really uncomfortable place to be.”

This is not science fiction. This is real Olympian life. Shiffrin is entering a World Cup Alpine ski season that begins this weekend in Soelden, Austria. It will include her third Olympics, this one in February in Beijing. She is 26 and won gold at each of her previous Games — in the slalom as an 18-year-old in Sochi and in the giant slalom four years later in PyeongChang, where she added a silver in the Alpine combined. Win one medal in China, and she will match Julia Mancuso as the most decorated American female ski racer. Win three — a distinct possibility, if not an expectation — and she will match Janica Kostelic of Croatia and Anja Parson of Sweden with the most Olympic medals of any women on the slopes.

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She is an Olympian, in the conversation as the best to ever strap on skis, female or male. But she is also a rabid consumer of the Olympics, a couch-hogging junkie who binges for hours. So she watched this summer voraciously, taping events during the day and settling in each night as the pandemic Games were beamed home from Tokyo. She saw Simone Biles — the prohibitive favorite for multiple medals in gymnastics, the darling of NBC’s pre-Olympic hype machine — become so overwhelmed that her mental health frayed, leading her to pull out of all but one event.

Who can relate to that journey? Mikaela Shiffrin, at home in Edwards, Colo., watching from an ocean away. Mikaela Shiffrin, fresh off a season so weighty and distressing that she occasionally felt as if she blacked out, as if she forgot where she was and where she was going. And Mikaela Shiffrin, in the start gate, trying to keep the Olympic Demogorgon at bay.

“It just becomes this thing that’s like: Huh, I never want to feel this way again,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t want to listen to the pressure. I don’t want to listen to the expectations. I don’t want to hear what other people are saying. I just want to block it out completely.

“And to an extent, that can work. But at the Olympics, it really rarely does. Like, you cannot limit distractions 100 percent. You kind of can’t limit distractions at all.”

The giant slalom Saturday in Soelden that kicks off this season is just one race that will help determine whether Shiffrin can win her fourth World Cup overall championship, the title that signifies success across all of skiing’s disciplines, a crown she hasn’t worn since 2019. She has won season-long World Cup titles six times in slalom and once each in giant slalom and super-G. Yet in an Olympic season, the Olympics have a way of overshadowing any of those pursuits.

She knows what the Olympic approach should be: focus on the skiing, on the same red and blue gates that define any course on any slope on any continent, that have led her to 69 World Cup wins, trailing only Lindsey Vonn (82) and Ingemar Stenmark (86). And she has reached the conclusion: Blocking out the noise is damn near impossible. Here comes the Demogorgon, which the Olympic rings can’t stave off.

“I’m kind of accepting and trying to prepare for basically the discomfort of the one situation that you hope would be this joyous, amazing event,” Shiffrin said. “What people see is the pictures with the Olympic rings, and ‘We went to the Opening Ceremonies!’ and ‘Look at these cool outfits! This is such a fun time. This is so great!’ But honestly, it’s terrifying for the entire two weeks straight.”

Her reality, after her last Olympics, was this: “I felt a way in South Korea that I never, ever wanted to feel again in my skiing career.”

And that was after winning two medals. And that was when her father was alive.

Loss — and recovery

On a Monday in the middle of September, Mikaela and her mother, Eileen, spent an entire evening at the dream home Mikaela built for them working through song after song after song. Her brother, Taylor, now 29, was to be married the following Sunday.

“We hope we have a playlist the DJ will embrace,” Eileen said the next day. The living room was littered with napkins and setting arrangements. The pot of water she left on the stovetop boiled over. Mikaela leaped off the couch to tone it down.

“Distraction,” Eileen Shiffrin said, “is really important.”

In February 2020, Jeff Shiffrin died following an accident at the family’s home. He was 65. In the operation of Team Shiffrin, Eileen has always been present and prominent: on the mountain, coaching and coordinating for Mikaela. Back home rather than on the road, Jeff seemed supportive but ancillary. For the family, he was essential.

“The linchpin,” Taylor said. “The absolute rock. The bedrock foundation for it all.”

So forgive the Shiffrins if, at least for a time, it all crumbled.

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“You can never return to what was,” Taylor said. “When you remove a foundation like that, it’s just fundamentally not possible to get back to the place you were before in the same manner.”

They are left to try. In the wake of Jeff’s death, Eileen and Mikaela decided it would be best for Mikaela to return to the mountain. On a beautiful bluebird day just weeks later, they drove over to Aspen. They strapped on their gear. They skied. Distraction.

“It broke my heart to see her just despondent every day,” Eileen said. “Really, it’s like somebody just takes a knife and stabs you right in the heart, and it didn’t seem to be healing at all.”

Mother and daughter had raced home from Europe to be with Jeff in the days before he died. But here they were back on the hill, then back on a flight to Are, Sweden, where the World Cup races were then canceled because the coronavirus pandemic was shutting down the globe. Every day since has been some measure of mixing distraction with grief.

“Probably the most important thing that I’ve learned is how much grief is — first of all it’s not linear at all and how exhausting it is,” Mikaela said. “It takes all of your physical and mental and emotional energy in the beginning just to wake up and get out of bed. And then to get through half a day without completely breaking down. Or to read an email or to think his name or to remind yourself that when the door opens and closes, that’s actually not him coming through the door anymore.”

The pain, the family has found, can be dulled by distraction. That could be by watching video of a slalom run. That could be by coming up with a wedding playlist. That could be by scouting out maps of the Alpine venues in Beijing and measuring how far they are from housing, predicting how much time it will take, getting lost in logistics.

“You have so much pain for so long, at some point you just say: ‘I’ve got to move on with life, and I can’t think about it. I can’t even think about it,’ ” Eileen said. “If I start thinking about Jeff, I just start feeling pain all over again.”

As she talked, Eileen got up from the couch and walked across the room, keeping a FaceTime conversation going. “Can you see this picture?” she asked, holding her phone to a frame. Jeff had always been a keen photographer, hiking up the racecourses when he was on-site to snap action photos of his daughter and her competitors. And here was a family portrait, displayed in the family home, taken by Jeff with a timer, when he ran back to join his wife, his daughter, his son and his soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, all smiling. The family was standing right at the spot at which Taylor and his fiancee, Kristi, would be married. The Gore Range section of the Rockies stretched out behind them.

“This wasn’t the last thing we did together,” Eileen said. “But it was one of the last things we did together.”

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She turned the phone back away from the frame. Taylor’s wedding was four days off.

“It’s going to be bittersweet,” Eileen said. “But we’re going to get through it.”

On that Sunday, there was no distraction, because Jeff Shiffrin was there. The leaves had turned, but the Gore Range had received a dusting of snow, a contrast made for postcards. Taylor pulled on the tuxedo his father had worn when he married his mother. When his mother walked him down the aisle, they carried a photo of Jeff — wearing that very tux, on his wedding day 35 years earlier — then placed it on an empty aisle seat. They found a video of Jeff giving a speech at a cousin’s wedding and played it for family and friends.

“He made an appearance from the great beyond,” Taylor said. “It was cathartic. It was joyful. It was probably the most emotion that I have ever experienced in the course of 24 hours.”

Three weeks later, Taylor’s kid sister headed back to Europe, where the next season awaited.

Genius, at work

Almost instantly, when they arrived as eighth graders at Burke Mountain Academy — a Vermont boarding school for elite ski racers — Mikaela Shiffrin and Brayton “Bug” Pech became fast friends. Almost as quickly, Pech realized her new roommate — who came to school maybe a month late — was, uh, different.

“She wasn’t even at school yet,” Pech said, “and we had watched more video of her than we did any of us.”

They showed that video because young Mikaela was that good. But they also showed that video because she relentlessly pursued the form on display. Pech, a close friend still, remembers a rare New England day that brought a dump of powder, so much so that classes were canceled because teachers couldn’t get to school. Burke’s students were euphoric, floating through the drifts. Shiffrin took a run with her peers.

“And she disappeared,” Pech said. “I was like, ‘Where the heck did that girl go?’”

From the lift, Pech looked back at the training hill. There was Shiffrin, on the best day to free ski Vermont would ever see, performing a monotonous, traversing-the-trail drill called “garlands.” Garlands are not designed for fun. Garlands are designed to improve ankle flexion and body position.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘We got three hours, and we never can ski woods in the East!’” Pech said. “And she’s like, ‘I got my one run, and that was my fun for the year.’ Everything has always had a purpose. Even her naps. There’s a purpose to her naps.”

The questions, as Shiffrin returned last fall to compete on the World Cup circuit with her dad’s death still defining daily existence: How did that tragedy impact her preparation? How did that tragedy impact her skiing?

“Last year was essentially a return from injury,” said Mike Day, her coach with U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Drawing a line between her father’s death and her results is both fraught and fair. In 2018-19, the most recent season before tragedy and pandemic, Shiffrin made 25 World Cup starts across all five of Alpine’s disciplines. The results: an astonishing 17 wins, two seconds and two thirds. In the 2020-21 season, she made 16 starts, won three times and had seven other podium finishes — spectacular for a mortal, mortal-looking for Mikaela.

Behind those results were, as Day said, “a million things that were different.” Her legendary focus had vanished. Her bottomless energy for work evaporated. She found it difficult to bring solid skiing from training to the mountain on race day. Her fog was so significant and unrelenting that her team elected to skip all downhill and super-G races: They are alpine’s fastest disciplines, and in Shiffrin’s state at the time, they were dangerous.

“She would get in the start gate, and she’d completely forget what the course was,” Eileen said. “She’s like: ‘I would get in there, Mom, and I would completely black out. I had no idea where I was going in the course.’ This happened in every single training run she did, too. She literally felt like she just didn’t know where she was going and even almost where her body parts were.”

In the midst of all this, though, Shiffrin was finding ways to cope. She read the book “Option B” by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband when he was 48. It outlined the concept of “post-traumatic growth”: the idea that devastation can be followed by some form of prosperity.

“Somehow, in that tragedy or that loss, you grow, and certain things in your life become better for it,” she said. “Other connections that you make are stronger. Friendships that you have are stronger. The way you understand the world becomes more clear.”

Around December, she began talking regularly with Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, a Norwegian skier who won the World Cup overall title in 2020. They had met perhaps six years earlier on the globe-trotting ski circuit, on which the women and men race simultaneously at the same site only occasionally. Their chats intensified as 2021 dawned. By June, they were Instagram official as a couple, posting workout videos together, walking the red carpet at the ESPYs together, vacationing in Maui together.

“Having somebody in her life like Aleks, it’s like a medicine,” Eileen said. “It’s like a salve. It’s just so good to have something positive — really, really positive — going on. It’s just nice to feel like you can laugh again.”

There is the obvious commonality in their pursuits, which is to be the best skier on the planet. But there is also a both a kinship off the mountain — “We don’t have to talk about skiing,” Kilde said — as well as a respect.

“I admire her, to be honest,” Kilde, 29, said by phone from Austria. “It’s kind of weird to say that about your girlfriend. But it’s quite impressive what she’s doing. She’s doing something that I want to be doing, too. I can learn from her.”

At the risk of connecting dots that should remain on their own, Shiffrin raced four times at the February world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, including her only competitive super-G of the season, and another super-G run that made up half of the combined. Her results: gold in the combined, silver in the giant slalom, bronze in both the super-G and the slalom. Four races. Four medals.

“This is definitely the happiest I’ve seen her in years as far as her personal life,” Pech said. “ … There’s a sense of security and fun that Aleks has instilled. She’s allowed to be her age. She’s allowing herself more the ability to participate in everyday life. And he shares really good and similar values as she does.”

Back into the breach

On a Thursday at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, Mikaela Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom and appeared poised for a historic Games. On that Friday, she finished fourth in the slalom. Given that her World Cup slalom results entering the Games were second, first, first, first, first and first, that Friday finish reads as a disappointment.

That interpretation ignores context: the constant wind that had shuffled the schedule; the lengthy medal ceremony the night before, in which Shiffrin smiled and waved and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and didn’t return to her apartment until 10:30 p.m.; and the persistent breezes that made the two runs of slalom unpredictable.

“She just was physically exhausted,” Eileen remembers, “including her brain.”

That set of circumstances contributed not only to her finish in the slalom — eight hundredths of a second away from a medal — but caused her to pull out of the downhill. Those developments — not winning a medal and not racing — brought a torrent of backlash on Shiffrin’s social media accounts, on which she is active. There was so much support. There was also occasional invective: She should have gone harder in the slalom. She had choked. She had let her country down.

“It’s way harder to forget one negative comment than remember 1,000 positive comments,” Shiffrin said. “Those are the ones that linger with you.”

They lingered even as Shiffrin won the silver in the combined, even as she left South Korea and returned to the relative normalcy of the World Cup. And they inform how she thinks of the Olympic experience now. These Games involve far more unknowns than certainties. The entire field hasn’t so much as put their feet on the competition slopes more than 80 miles north of Beijing.

She and her team are hopeful about this season, in part because vaccinated coaches and support staff and relaxed coronavirus restrictions will allow for more normal training, in part because the grieving process isn’t as fresh. Team Shiffrin’s bubble is back to its normal intensity.

“Our preparation has been far better than it was a year ago,” Day said. “Her fitness levels are as high or higher than they’ve ever been. I feel like she’s coming back to a little bit more normalcy with the quality of skiing and volume of skiing and the focus as well.”

Normal, for Mikaela Shiffrin, includes results no other skier can produce. She knows that. The world knows that. The Demogorgon awaits.

“I try to be a realistic person,” she said. “So as much as I would love the Olympics to be a two-week, fun, incredible experience, and I get everything I want out of it, like …”

She sighed.

Come on. Even if it’s incredibly successful results-wise, it’s still not going to be the most fun, enjoyable time ever. There are going to be incredible moments, and there are going to be really hard moments. That’s kind of the realism. That is what‘s going to happen. So to try to convince myself of anything else, it’s like being in denial before the event actually happens. And I want to go into it with a really open mind. I feel like that’s really what we’re working toward.”


An earlier version of this story transposed Shiffrin's results in various events at the most recent world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. She won the gold medal in the combined, silver in the giant slalom, and bronze medals in the super-G and the slalom. The story has been updated.

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