Be Your Best, Naturally: Mikaela Shiffrin

U.S. Ski Team alpine racer Mikaela Shiffrin, now 26, is remarkable for so many reasons. She’s been turning heads since she was 16, a prodigy who showed incredible talent and grace under pressure and who is now poised to become the best ski racer in history. (She’s already the best American alpine skier ever—a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a three-time overall world cup champion.) But what makes her so rare is that although she is one of the world’s best athletes, a superhero by any metric, Shiffrin has somehow managed to stay human—which is to say humble, honest, and real.

This past year was a rough one for all of us—and fate didn’t play favorites. In February of 2020, Shiffrin’s beloved father passed away after an accident at his Vail, Colo., home. Grappling with the incredible loss, she began the season visibly shaken, unsure if she would race. To add to her already immeasurable obstacles, COVID had shut down races and thrown her training schedule off, her persistent back injury flared up, and the mountain of paperwork from her father's passing usurped all of her time and energy. 

Then, in February, she had her best-ever performance at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Italy—her first time racing in speed events in more than a year—becoming the most decorated U.S. alpine skier in world championship history.   

To find out how she found her feet again, we caught up with her at her home in Vail. Here's what she had to say. (Click here to listen to the full version from our podcast.)

Photo by Steven Earl Photography

Q: It’s been a pretty rough year and a half. You lost your grandmother, you lost your father, you had a back injury, and then there’s been this little thing called the Coronavirus. Then at the 2021 World Championships you won four medals, the most you have won in a single World Championship event. Have you surprised yourself with how tough and strong you are?

Shiffrin: I don’t particularly feel strong or tough, but there were some moments this year that were pretty incredible. I didn’t go into this year with any expectations in terms of racing, but whatever expectations I did have, this season exceeded them. I didn’t expect that we were going to even have a season. I didn’t expect that I would be on the podium in the majority of the races, or even win again. There wasn’t any point when I felt tough or strong—I just felt, like, “Here we are, and I’m doing it.” I just put my head down, stayed focused, and got it done. 

But I remember more of the moments that were difficult or heartbreaking, or sad or disappointing. For whatever reason those are the ones that stick with you.

Q: You said one time that grieving is like an injury that no one can see. How did you refocus?

Shiffrin: Focusing has always been one of my strengths. This year it turned into a weakness of sorts. I’m still able to focus, but the energy I have had to focus for a long time has been more of a struggle. I’ve had to find a different way to get through race days. Between runs, I’d start to feel not even physically tired, but mentally, I was losing it. I’d fall off the train tracks, get more emotional, or feel like I needed to take a nap. That’s something I haven’t experienced in the past. I’m trying to figure out some strategies to handle those situations better. Some of it is changing my playlist for a little calm between runs, and then listening to my pump-up playlist closer to when I ski. That’s one strategy that will be helpful for next season and the rest of my career. That prolonged focus has been the toughest thing to get back. 

Q: That might come back with time. Grieving is a long process.

Shiffrin: Yeah, it comes in waves too. You think you’re good, and then it hits and you’re, like, I’m not good.

Q: Has all this loss changed your perspective at all?

Shiffrin: In the immediate weeks after, there was a lot of sadness and anger. But in the few moments where I might have laughed or felt sad, I immediately felt guilty. Everywhere you go, when there’s a feeling of happiness or joy or anything good, guilt follows immediately. Every day that gets a little bit better, but there are moments when I’m, like, “Why do I deserve to be here and care about something as silly as a ski race when he can’t be here at all?” But then I think about it in the sense that, if I do have the ability to feel and work and care, it is my duty to feel and work and care. I’m sure my dad would prefer to be here, but at the very least I doubt my dad would want me to throw it all away because I feel guilty,

My perspective has changed a lot. I have a better perspective on gratitude—feeling grateful that we were able to have had a World Cup season, that I was able to compete, even though I certainly would have liked to win more races. But everyone is out there wanting to win, and just because you want it doesn’t make it happen. I’m grateful for all the people back home who are helping me and my mom, making sure the house and finances are being taken care of so we can come home and have life in order. That is a huge piece that my dad took care of. We felt completely blind and like the entire world was ripped out from underneath us and didn’t know the first step to take to put things back. Things are more under control now, and I can get back to being a pro athlete, and I’m grateful for that more than I ever was. So there’s definitely a sense of gratitude everywhere I look. 

Photo by U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Q: Do you have any spiritual beliefs that help you through this tough time?

Shiffrin: I don’t have any particular beliefs. One thing that was a comforting thought, though, is that energy cannot be created or destroyed. I was the closest to my dad when he died and listened to his heart stop. The energy that was in him had to find somewhere else to go. And in some sort of metaphysical or scientific way, maybe it went into us. When I’m home and around pictures of him, that’s when I feel closer to him. I haven’t gotten the feeling that people talk about, like he’s here, but I’d love to be able to feel some sort of presence near me. I feel closer to him when I’m thinking about him or skiing or studying because he was such a big proponent of learning and being interested in the world around you. There was a period of time where I was, like, “Dad, whatever, let me watch this TV show.” He knew something about everything. He just didn’t exist without learning or gaining or imparting some knowledge. It was really special. 

Q: Tell me about fear. Ski racing takes serious courage. Is there anything you’re afraid of?

Shiffrin: A lot of speed skiers say they don’t have fear, and I think that’s very rare. A lot of people say that to put themselves up on a pedestal, and I think a lot of times that’s a flat-out lie. If you don’t feel slightly on edge standing on top of a downhill course and knowing you’re about to hit 80 mph, you should probably get that checked out. 

The important thing is finding the tools to not let that fear take control. We’re scared, but we do it anyway. We have specific things to think about, like pressuring your outside ski or finding your aerodynamic position. These are all things that are supposed to make you go faster, but they’re also supposed to make you feel more stable at that speed. And if nothing else, it gives you something else to think about aside from being terrified. It’s some place to focus your mind aside from what you’re afraid of. 

It’s kind of like when you have a bad dream and have to think of something else to get back to sleep. Sleeping feels like the most uncontrollable thing we do, but you can still find a way to control it. If you can control your brain when you’re sleeping, you absolutely can do it when you’re skiing.

As for things I’m afraid of, I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid of pain. I don’t particularly like needles, and I’m afraid of literally anything touching my eyes. I sometimes am afraid of the dark. Not a huge fan of spiders, either. But on a deeper level, I’m afraid of losing people that I love. You go through life thinking tragedies happen, but it’s not going to happen to me. I just felt like a tragic accident was so far from happening to my immediate family, and then that happened, and now I feel like there’s a 100 percent chance it’s going to happen to everyone I care about. That’s a fear that can be actually crippling.

Photo by Steven Earl Photography

Q: Back injuries are not uncommon for tech skiers, and I know you’ve struggled with that recently. How is it doing?

Shiffrin: It probably has to do with a crash I took when I was 9 and had bad whiplash. There’s a section of my spine that doesn’t move quite as well as the rest, and as I get older, the part that’s less mobile puts more pressure on the part that is more mobile, which is my lower lumbar. I focus a lot on core strength. I’m trying to make my muscles become a brace around my spine instead of having an actual brace. It works well, but when you’re skiing, the forces are high and there are so many variables. In the fall, I just hit a bump in exactly the wrong way and my back lit up. I couldn’t move my head forward without feeling like I’m going to collapse. I was, like, “Come on, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and if I can’t do this, should I even be trying?”

It took a little time, didn’t require surgery. The damage I have isn’t uncommon, but people respond to it differently. Turns out I’m one of the people who feels it. What’s good about what’s happened is that I now have a much better understanding. I needed to be able to race without fear that my back was going to break. We got things back under control and had conservative progression. I was not necessarily expecting to win, but I could ski a full-length course twice a day. It was really about building back my confidence and especially my muscle strength around my spine and my entire core area. 

This summer will be better—I’m not going to be spending as much time sitting learning about accounts and working through tax forms, so I should be able to get back to a regular plan. Last summer I would just do my sessions whenever I was tired of sitting. And that’s not what you need to be doing as an athlete trying to compete at a professional level. I was, like, “Well, I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to get away with this.” 

For the full version of our interview with Shiffrin, check out our podcast. Also be sure to tune into the Winter Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, in February 2022, to watch Shiffrin compete.