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Mikaela Shiffrin, 0-for-the-Olympics, got right back up — and won another world title

Mikaela Shiffrin won her fourth World Cup title this season. (Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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Mikaela Shiffrin’s nine-hour drive from the end of an Alpine ski season that was equal parts crushing and revitalizing came Monday with her boyfriend at the wheel, her mother in the car behind them and three trophies stuffed into the luggage. Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the Norwegian champion who is Shiffrin’s partner, put the crystal globes he claimed for winning the season-long World Cup titles in downhill and super-G in his car. Shiffrin put the larger globe in the car driven by her mother.

“I really don’t know if we actually have a plan to get that thing home,” she said by phone, somewhere on the route between Courchevel, France, where her season ended, and Munich, where a flight home to Colorado awaited.

Shiffrin has experience with such hardware, and it hasn’t always been positive. On one trip with another overall globe — these things are both massive and fragile — the ball snapped off the stem. It’s now glued back together and in a museum in Vail, Colo.

“The big ones are hard to transport,” she said. “It doesn’t count as carry-on luggage, but you definitely don’t want to check it. It gets a little complicated. But that’s okay.”

There’s Shiffrin’s season: a little complicated but ultimately okay. The overall championship is the fourth of her career but first since 2019, and it matches her with Lindsey Vonn for the most by an American. It is an accomplishment Shiffrin called “my big dream as a little girl, even more than Olympic medals.”

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It represents superior skiing across four disciplines, and for ski racing junkies, the owner of that gigantic orb has a claim to being the best racer on the planet in that year. In that sense, it’s appropriate that she blew open a tight race with Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova by winning the season’s final downhill last week, then clinched the title by placing second in the final super-G the following day. Shiffrin has 74 World Cup victories and 120 podium finishes in her career, but only seven of the wins and 15 of the top-threes have come in Alpine’s fastest two disciplines. That she put the title away in events that are far from her slalom specialty shows an overall evolution.

There is a lot to process in this achievement, because it is her first championship since her father, Jeff, died in an accident just more than two years ago, a tragedy so unsettling that Shiffrin would find herself blacking out during training runs.

“I feel like this overall represents a journey that’s not just this season but actually a two-year-long journey,” Shiffrin said. “It’s sort of fighting back from everything else that has happened that kind of knocked me off a bit. … For a while, I was just trying to find my way.”

Shiffrin is aware of the caveats that will arise, the giant “Yeah, but …” reaction that a sports-consuming culture could bring up — and fairly — when assessing her season in total. This was an Olympic year, and the woman who was just crowned the best skier on the planet went 0-for-the-Olympics. That actually undersells it. In February in Beijing, she entered all five individual races. She failed to even reach the bottom half of the course in three of them — three disciplines in which she already owns Olympic medals. In a rubbernecking, voyeuristic way, Shiffrin’s inability to complete tasks she has mastered became one of the primary American stories of the Beijing Games. She’s not blind to that. She just doesn’t understand it.

“I’ve definitely, I guess, ruminated on the performance there in Beijing quite a bit,” she said. “And I still haven’t really come up with any answers or explanations for why I’ve had consistent podiums throughout the season literally in four different disciplines and why it didn’t work a single time. Because I wasn’t trying to do anything different or anything special. …

“Maybe I was thinking, ‘It’s now or never,’ kind of like ‘Bold or bust.’ And I busted. I didn’t bold.”

The dichotomy for most athletes in Olympic sports is that the pursuits into which they put the most annual effort, those that define their successes and failures in non-Olympic years, aren’t the pursuits that matter to a fan who views the Olympics as a 17-day extravaganza. Shiffrin is an expert at describing the suffocating pressure she feels at the Olympics, and the language around what she did and didn’t do there gets dicey. She has seen references to “choking” and “failing” at an event on which there are infinitely more eyeballs than there were at World Cup finals, even if she was wrapping up a season-long championship that means so much to her and to the people in her sport.

“[The Olympics are] the one where everybody tunes in, and that’s the one where it all went wrong,” Shiffrin said. “I’ll be held to that. I’ll hold myself to it. But those people out there who tune in to watch the Olympics and then don’t care about the rest of the World Cup season, I know they can be like, ‘Well, it’s nice that you’re doing this now, but why couldn’t you have done it over the course of the Olympics?’ It’s a question I ask myself, too. I don’t really have an answer for that.”

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For now, and for the next three years, she doesn’t have to answer those questions. There will be mileposts along the way. Vonn holds the record for World Cup race wins by a woman with 82, a mark Shiffrin trails by just eight. Ingemar Stenmark’s record for either gender is 86. Given that Shiffrin has averaged nine victories per season in her career — and that, even as she dealt with her father’s death and a balky back and a positive test for the coronavirus, she has won 14 races over the past three seasons — those marks seem attainable. Not a given but also not far-fetched. Two more overall titles would tie her with Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll for the most by a woman.

She also has a structure she lacked in those days following her father’s death, back when she was blindly wandering through the wilderness. Kilde speaks skiing, for sure; he’s a World Cup overall champion in his own right. But he also seems to speak Shiffrin. Her answer to whether her relationship with Kilde had an impact on her ability to move past the Olympics and achieve a primary goal: undoubtedly.

“He helps in finding a way to get a little bit more positive outlook,” she said. “I need that. Especially the last couple years, my tendency is to be negative and to get down, and I don’t do that when I’m with him. Maybe I rely on it a little bit too much, but I’m trying to bring that back into my own personality.”

She is 27, no longer the teen who won gold in the slalom in Sochi, no longer the unburdened machine who cranked out World Cup titles and looked like she would never stop. Mikaela Shiffrin is an adult who has lived — who is living — life. The Milan-Cortina Olympics of 2026 are distant. Keep them there. Disappointment is part of her story. But so is success — and success in the face of such disappointment makes her a richer, more interesting character whether it’s an Olympic year or not.

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