Mikaela Shiffrin’s ski racing spirit was earned and grown over two decades on mountainsides from Vermont to Colorado and across Europe. It was nurtured in junior races where only parents and officials stood in the cold and watched. And it flourished at the Olympic Games, where the entire world watched. She was a prodigy, then a wunderkind, then a star. That spirt came unraveled in 16 seconds across two Olympic races in China, contested 48 hours apart. After the second, she first sat alone in the snow, and silently questioned everything she had believed about herself and the sport that defined her, and then stood in the snow and questioned those same things out loud.
It would take some time to rebuild. Hours. Days. Races.
That process began Thursday night in the women’s super-G race at these same Olympics, yet another 48 hours after she skied out of the slalom – her dominant specialty – and on an adjacent hillside, covered in the same, reliable, man-made snow, under the same brilliant sunshine, beneath the same craggy mountains. It began where she began, back as a little girl with her parents and brother alongside: In pursuit of clean, beautiful skiing, first, victories later. It ended with her crossing the finish line not in first place, or second, or third. But in ninth place. And vertical.
"There is a lot of disappointment over the last week, and there’s a lot of emotions," Shiffrin said. "Not really easy to reset and know if I was up to the challenge today. The track today was beautiful and it’s sunny and the snow is amazing. Coming back out, and getting the chance to race again was the perfect thing to do actually.
"It felt really nice to ski that today," Shiffrin said, "I just skied strong. And it’s a big relief to be here now, at the finish, having skied again, well. Like I wasn’t skiing safely or anything, but I did get to the finish, and that’s really nice for my head, to know I’m not totally abandoning everything I know about the sport." (This might sound like hyperbole, but after Tuesday night’s slalom, Shiffrin said, "It makes me second guess, like, the last 15 years, everything I thought I knew about my own skiing in slalom and racing mentality." So: Even allowing for her emotions in the moment, not hyperbole.)
Her reaction to merely finishing a race, when she is so accustomed to winning them (73 World Cup victories, five world championships, a gold medal in slalom at the 2014 Olympics, and a gold medal in GS at the 2018 Olympics) was similar to that of legendary snowboarder Shaun White, just an hour earlier. White, a pioneer in his sport and three-time Olympic gold medalist, finished fourth at age 35 in what is likely his last Games. He wept as he spoke with NBC’s Randy Moss. "Snowboarding," he said. "Thank you."
Shiffrin is eight years younger than White, and not nearly finished, but she left Tuesday night’s slalom in search of that same type of joyful emotion toward her sport. Her path back would not be easy: The giant slalom and slalom are her best races – she’s exceptional in the former and dominant in the latter. The super-G (and the downhill that follows on Monday night) are the so-called "speed" races, because they are straighter, steeper, and faster than the "technical" GS and slalom. Shiffrin is an excellent speed skier, but searching for lost mojo in a super-G is not only difficult, but dangerous.
Shiffrin has raced five super-Gs this season, and twice finished third. She has four super-G wins on the World Cup circuit and won the super-G at the 2019 World Championships. But her schedule is always complicated and was made more so this year by a back injury and a COVID infection in December. Until Thursday in China, she had not worn super-G skis since mid-December. So that is where the climb back to find herself began.
"We went out yesterday for three runs of training," said Shiffrin. "To see if, okay, super-G feels okay. So the plan was to get on super-G skis and see if it would be safe to race today."
Then there was the other side. Shiffrin was clearly, and openly gutted after Tuesday night’s slalom. She had been just as clearly disappointed two days earlier, after the GS, but this was different. She would say after Thursday night’s race that she had been repeatedly dreaming about skiing out at the fifth gate in a race. "Surprise!" she said, laughing. (She said after finishing fourth in the PyeongChang slalom, that race unspooled in her dreams, as well. Here, she needed to rediscover herself.
"After the last week, there was a lot of emotional fatigue," Shiffrin said. "I’m emotionally weary right now, just a sense of dullness. And you can’t have that, racing, especially not racing speed. Today [Thursday night in the U.S.] I feel a little bit more settled. Trying to keep some calmness. Just trying to focus on the task at hand."
She was helped in regaining her purchase by the support, close by, of her family and friends, including her boyfriend, Norwegian racer Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. But also by a cascade of supportive notes from much further away. "It’s been the most incredible feeling, to have so many people reaching out, sending support, and so much kindness," Shiffrin said. "I wouldn’t have expected so much support and understanding when I failed twice to do the job that I was supposed to do." (Shiffrin used similar language when talking to NBC’s Todd Lewis, especially in relation to "failure." She said to Lewis, "It is failure," she said. "It’s okay to say that. I’m okay with that."
Shiffrin said she did not expect to win or medal. Too rusty, perhaps a little too wary. "I wanted to ski the hill and the course properly," she said. "Not winning it. I didn’t think we had a very good chance of coming in winning or even winning a medal, in this race with all these women who are skiing super-G all year." Shiffrin has beaten all them, at various times, so there is some very appropriate goalpost-moving at work. So be it. Lara Gut-Behrami won the gold medal, adding to the bronze she won in GS.
Once committed, Shiffrin sought merely to "ski well." That’s a phrase that skiers occasionally lean on to deflect racing pressure, but in this case it was real. Shiffrin needed to make clean turns, find a competitive line, and finish. And this synchs up with the way she learned to ski: Her late father Jeff raised and coached his kids to pursue artful skiing, and let the wins follow. "I did solid skiing today," she said. "Good solid turns. Stayed in my tuck. Everything was pretty much on point." Truth. But if you looked closely as Shiffrin hit the finish corral, there was a moment of something less than satisfaction, a slight pursing of the lips, palpable relief bumping up against the competitive desire that has been suppressed, but surely not killed.
She is eligible to ski three more races at these Olympics. First comes the downhill, which includes three training runs. "We’re going to do the training runs," she said. "And see how I feel on this track. I feel a lot more positive and a little relived after this super-G." After that is the combined, one run of downhill and one run of slalom; Shffrin came to China favored to win that event. She said she will definitely race that. (There is also the possibility of racing in the team event next weekend).
"I want to ski this track and I want to ski it well," Shiffrin said. "I’d like another chance at that track in the combined slalom."
If you listened a certain way, you could hear the metaphorical sound of hammers and nails, the sound of the best female skier on earth putting herself back together while the world watches. The sound of strength and survival. The sound of chapters yet unwritten.