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Mikaela Shiffrin’s Olympic prep has included covid, isolation, tears — and relief

Mikaela Shiffrin inspects the course in Kronplatz, Italy during a Alpine Ski World Cup event in January, 2022. (Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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The Olympics were only five weeks away, and the most prominent Team USA athlete was sequestered in a hotel room in Austria, reduced to doing pull-ups on her bed frame and lunges with a single 15-kilogram plate and knocking on the wall to say hi to her mother in the adjacent room. This is not how a two-time gold medalist is supposed to prepare for winning more gold medals. But covid-19 doesn’t care if the Olympics are afoot, so here was Mikaela Shiffrin, coughing and with a sore throat, in isolation when she should have been ski racing.

“I’ve never taken more than four days off of skiing in the season in my whole career,” Shiffrin said Thursday by phone from Austria. “I think, in my entire life, I’ve never done that. I was like: Oh, my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

With the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Winter Games on Friday, Shiffrin is over covid, out of isolation and back on the mountain. She has even won again on the World Cup circuit in circumstances that brought about an unprecedented outpouring of emotion — which we’ll get to.

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But here’s the thing about being Mikaela Shiffrin in 2022: She is the 26-year-old American face of the Games, the athlete NBC tabbed to ski race with dinosaurs while cross-promoting a new “Jurassic Park” film, the personality most likely to appear on the “Today” show, the most familiar and famous of the 223 athletes who make up Team USA. Translation: As much as any American athlete’s, her results in China will be binary. Racing in as many as five Alpine events, she will either win or she will lose. She will medal, or she won’t.

American Olympians took selfies as they walked the red carpet before boarding their charter plane to Beijing on Jan. 27. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

But the context of this season is more complex than that. As she took a breath from recapping it all Thursday, she distilled it thus: “There’s a lot going on there, and we’re not even at the Olympics yet.” The context isn’t just those pull-ups on a hotel bed frame in a desperate attempt to maintain some form of fitness. The context is perhaps best displayed by Shiffrin’s head, buried in her own arms as she leaned on a wall at the bottom of a racecourse in Schladming, Austria. She had just won her 47th World Cup slalom race, giving her more victories in a single Alpine discipline than anyone in history. And she was absolutely bawling.

What went into those emotions?

“Uhhhh, man,” Shiffrin said, and she paused. “It’s a little bit hard to explain fully.”

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She tried. The answer took 22 minutes. It involved covid, isolation, memories of her late father, missing races, training before dawn wearing a headlamp to light the course, feeling as if she might not even do the second slalom run at Schladming and so much more wedged among the headlines. The short version is this: “It felt like I had just kind of run out of other sources of fuel right in between runs at Schladming.” After a mediocre first run left her fifth, behind, among others, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia — her chief competition in the technical races, all season and heading into Beijing — she was a lethal combination of exhausted and confused.

“I felt that I was in such a good mind-set and in the right place to bring out exhilarating skiing, not blah skiing,” she said. “And I didn’t. And that just completely shreds apart all of my premises that I have learned about ski racing from the time I was 6 years old.

“It was like a breaking point after the previous weeks — and honestly the previous years. And I was just like: ‘I can’t even take the second run today. I’m so exhausted.’ I just basically started crying after the first run, and I pretty much didn’t stop until I was through the second run.”

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On paper, Shiffrin’s season looks as if she’s prepared to contend for multiple medals — which she did four years ago in South Korea, a gold in the giant slalom and a silver in the combined, which includes one run of slalom and one of downhill. Shiffrin has raced six World Cup slaloms this season, winning two, finishing second three times and infuriatingly straddling a gate in the sixth. She has raced five giant slaloms, winning two and finishing second once. She even has two third-place finishes in super-G — Alpine’s second-fastest discipline behind downhill.

The results say she’s a multi-medal threat, just as she was in PyeongChang, four years after winning slalom gold in Sochi in her Olympic debut as a teenager. If she wins multiple medals, she’ll pass Julia Mancuso as the most decorated American female Alpine skier. If she were to win three medals — a big ask but also a possibility — she would tie Bode Miller for the most Olympic medals by an American skier, not to mention Croatia’s Janica Kostelic and Sweden’s Anja Parson for the most by a female Alpine skier, with six.

But all those stats and possibilities don’t explain as much about her season as that second run under the lights at Schladming. After her 10-day covid isolation forced her to miss two races — a slalom and a giant slalom, probably costing her chances at season-long titles in both disciplines — she had to wedge training into a tight racing schedule. She went to Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, finished a disappointing seventh in a giant slalom in which she “felt like a fish out of water,” then hooked a gate in the second run of slalom.

“It’s one of five or six straddles — including training days — that I’ve had in my career as a ski racer,” she said.

Her training was so short that, on the day between Kranjska Gora and Schladming, her team found a slope on which to train slalom — but it was only available early, so she took that predawn warmup run wearing a headlamp. (“That was probably stupid,” she said.)

And, oh, yeah, the Olympics are coming. That was all bundled up inside her, and it erupted in between runs at Schladming. Her team, led by her mother, Eileen, and head coach Mike Day, eventually convinced her that, well, “We are here,” and you’re not in danger, and it’s one more run of slalom, so you might as well race. Near the start gate, she grew distracted by bubbly American teammate Paula Moltzan, who was stretching herself into so many versions of a pretzel that it broke through Shiffrin’s misery and made her giggle.

“I was so sad and so tired and really just dwelling on my own situation,” Shiffrin said. “And I’m never going to forget that moment looking at Paula, because she was so positive.”

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From there came the moment it turned, and it’s a feeling Shiffrin would do well to take to Beijing: “I just kind of clomped down, and I just skied.” When she does that — when she is free of mind and sound in body — there is no one better. A blazing, inspired second run put her in the lead. Vlhova, the final skier, couldn’t come within half a second of it. There was the victory, and there were the tears.

Ski racing is fickle, and results can be determined by who draws a favorable wind or whether the sun peeks out to change the conditions in the middle of the competition. Shiffrin has wrestled with the outsize importance of the Olympics for years and readily admits that the outside pressure is almost suffocating. She said she is still considering racing in all five disciplines, with downhill the most likely to come off the schedule. But whatever the race, each time she is in the starting gate, all eyes will be on her. That’s some combination of exhilarating and unsettling.

As she heads to her third Games seeking medals Nos. 4, 5 and beyond, she has navigated enough bumps that maybe the Olympics will be — get this — a relief. On Thursday, she was packing for her Friday flight and sounded almost relaxed.

“Once we get there, I might be able to take a breath, finally,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Ohhhh, now I can take a really big, long exhale.’ I feel much better about it. Actually, somehow, the stress isn’t building anymore.”

Mikaela Shiffrin is over covid, out of isolation and feeling good about the Olympics. What might that mean?

“We’ll see,” she said.

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