Early Monday morning, text messages flew back and forth between Mikaela Shiffrin and her brother Taylor long before the sun rose over the barren brown mountains streaked with rivers of artificial snow at the Yanqing National Alpine Centre.
Taylor Shiffrin kidded his sister about being up so early before her first race at these Winter Olympics, defending the gold medal she won in the giant slalom four years ago. It was the start of an ambitious week and a half in which she could chase medals in five individual events.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Seconds into the first of two runs down the steep course dubbed the “Ice River,” Mikaela Shiffrin missed a gate, fell on her side, then skied off. It was the first giant slalom she failed to complete in four years. The day ended with nothing for the world’s most dominant female skier other than shock and questions.
“I won’t ever get over this,” Shiffrin said, reciting a handful of races that haven’t gone as expected in her career. “That heartbreak never goes away and I think that’s what drives me to keep working.”
Only seconds into her first giant slalom run, Mikaela Shiffrin slips and misses a gate, ending her bid to recapture gold in the event.
This heartbreak, however, isn’t anything like what the 26-year-old has faced on her winding journey to the ski runs carved out of the Xiaohaituo Mountain Area. She has experienced the sudden death of her father, a back injury and a positive test for the coronavirus.
Now the world will be watching to see how one of the faces of the Games will respond to the setback.
Two years ago, Jeff Shiffrin died unexpectedly after an accident at the family’s home in Edwards, Colo. In a gut-wrenching Instagram post at the time, Mikaela Shiffrin wrote that the family was “heartbroken beyond comprehension” and he was “our ocean, our sunrise, our heart, our soul, our everything.” The loss was seismic for the tight-knit family.
The 65-year-old anesthesiologist was a fixture at his daughter’s competitions, camera usually around his neck. He developed her training plan along with his wife, Eileen, who travels with her daughter as one of her coaches. They called him the “scheduleator” since he handled the family’s daunting logistics, down to mapping the distance from each parking lot to each chairlift they visited. More than that, he brought a sense of home, a sense of protection, a sense he would move mountains to care for his family.
Ten months passed between her races in 2020. The grief gnawed away at everything.
“She has learned how to perform while being incredibly uncomfortable and more importantly while having minimal motivation,” Taylor Shiffrin said from the family’s home. “In many other major Olympic and world championship moments, she’s been incredibly uncomfortable. She’s been nervous. She’s been throwing up. She can’t control it.”
He recalled his sister vanishing after the first run a few years ago. She didn’t respond to text messages or phone calls. The family found her on the bed in her hotel room, legs propped against the wall. She told them she was so nervous that she couldn’t feel her body.
“She knows how to perform when she’s uncomfortable,” Taylor Shiffrin continued. “What’s different? Over the last 24 months since Dad passed, her motivation just evaporated.”
“Losing Dad took the wind out of the sails for Mikaela and all of us, so even getting back on skis was a monumental accomplishment.”
— Taylor Shiffrin
The results didn’t show it. She has reached the podium 25 times since returning to racing. Her 73 career victories on the World Cup circuit are nine behind Lindsey Vonn’s all-time mark for women. It’s not that she simply maintained the level of performance that has earned 11 world championship medals, three overall World Cup titles and three Olympic medals — two gold — it’s that she has pushed through the sadness and somehow improved.
“She’s like a textbook of skiing,” said Ted Ligety, who won Olympic gold medals in the combined and giant slalom. “When she decides she wants to go full-on, she’s unbeatable.”
Shiffrin struggled with a back injury in October and November, which limited training, then tested positive for the coronavirus in December and missed the World Cup stop in Lienz, Austria, while isolating.
“This season has been nonstop beating our heads against the wall in one form or another,” Mikaela Shiffrin said.
Despite the obstacles, she’s still the world’s top-ranked female skier. The Olympics have injected another layer of challenges, even before Monday’s setback, as memories of her father rushed back and she acknowledged having “challenging moments” since arriving.
Recapping the news, results and highlights from The Times’ team of reporters who covered the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.
All sorts of things remind the family of Jeff Shiffrin. Songs by ABBA and Jimmy Buffett. “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” movies. Skiing good powder. Photography. Sunsets. And, yes, the Olympics. The night before Mikaela Shiffrin won the giant slalom at the Pyeongchang Games, her brother recalled, the family made pizza and watched the superhero movie “Justice League.” Or Jeff Shiffrin’s cheering as they watched Jessie Diggins’ dramatic finish to win gold in the team sprint freestyle cross-country competition at those Games. Mikaela Shiffrin said she kidded her dad that he was more excited about Diggins than one of her races “and that’s saying something.”
What she does, or doesn’t do, at the Beijing Games has to be viewed through the prism of the man who is missing.
“Losing Dad took the wind out of the sails for Mikaela and all of us, so even getting back on skis was a monumental accomplishment,” Taylor Shiffrin said. “The fact that they managed to get to China and compete is already a win in my books. I was telling them, ‘I don’t care if you DNF [Did Not Finish]. … You guys should be proud of yourselves and know that just by being there you’ve already won a huge battle that’s far more important than any Olympic performance you could imagine, regardless of whether you win or medal or finish last.’
“She learned how to ski when she doesn’t want to. To go through that brutal, life-altering experience changes your viewpoint on many, many, many things.”
After the disappointment in the giant slalom — Sweden’s Sara Hector won the event — Shiffrin remained composed, thoughtful, reflective as she dissected what went wrong.
“It was literally just how I skied that turn, the timing ... trying to push it but almost anxious,” Shiffrin said. “It just didn’t work.”
There are ample opportunities for redemption. The first is the slalom Wednesday. This is her signature event. Last month, her 47th win in the slalom last month broke the World Cup record for the most victories in a single discipline. It’s also the event she won at age 18 during the Sochi Games in 2014 to become the youngest slalom champion of either gender in Olympic history.
The first snowfall has hit Beijing — almost a month earlier than usual — as China looks ahead to what could be one of the country’s coldest winters ever.
But the Yanqing National Alpine Centre’s snow is unforgiving. The terrain is some of the steepest Shiffrin has ever experienced. Gusts of wind can wreck a run in an instant.
“There is going to just be a huge element of crossing your fingers during these Games,” she said.
It returns to the attitude Shiffrin’s parents instilled. Focus on the process, not the outcome. Focus on the next turn, not the victory. And as her brother watches from a continent away and thinks about the heartbreak, he sees what could be obscured by the chase for gold medals. By being here, she’s already won.
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