Mikaela Shiffrin’s best season also brought the most anxiety

Leave a comment

An unfamiliar feeling came over Mikaela Shiffrin at the first slalom of this past season, about one minute before she would push out of the gate as the last racer in the final run.

“Oh my gosh, I’m going to throw up,” Shiffrin recalled last week of a World Cup stop in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. “I didn’t actually, but I kind of dry heaved or gagged in the start and then went.”

Shiffrin had never thrown up at a competition.

“I have now,” she said last week. “Not in the first race, but I did actually throw up at several races after that, until probably the middle of the season.”

In Shiffrin’s best season as an Alpine racer, she experienced the most anxiety.

Why?

Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who travels with her on the World Cup circuit, confidently answered.

“Historically, the reason you weren’t nervous was you were always the most well-prepared athlete on the hill,” she said to her daughter, sitting next to her in a conference room at Rockefeller Center. “This fall, we ran into a lot of challenges getting Mikaela time training. She was not prepared for the races she went into, and she knew it. That’s why she was nervous.”

Shiffrin was busier than ever this season. At age 21, she made 25 World Cup starts, five more than her previous high. She made her first World Cup downhill starts, racing at least once in every discipline for the first time.

That meant she had less time for practice, in particular to keep her slalom prowess on point. Shiffrin said she got “absolutely no solid training” before stops in Levi, Killington, Vt. (Nov. 26-27) and Lake Louise, Alberta (Dec. 2-4). A snowstorm didn’t help.

On the stat sheet, Shiffrin handled it incredibly well. She won in Levi and Killington, among 11 World Cup victories total (previous best: six). She captured her third straight world title in the slalom and her first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing.

But she also had those recurring feelings early in the season. Before races, Shiffrin’s throat felt like it was closing.

In Levi, she felt a series of stomach cramps. She took that second run anyway, leading by .72 of a second after the first run, and still won by .67.

“I was thinking, there’s something wrong here,” Shiffrin said. “I’ve never been this nervous before. And it would come at times when I didn’t actually feel jittery nervous, like butterflies.”

The worst was her next slalom two weeks later in Killington, Vt.

“I really, honestly, almost went home that day,” she said, “because I was so distraught.”

Shiffrin won that race, too, by a comfortable .73.

“My skiing felt pretty good, actually, in the warm-ups and when I was freeskiing,” she said, “but when it came down to just do it in the race, I was totally just skiing defensively. It was fast enough to win, but it wasn’t the way that I wanted to do it.”

Shiffrin did not seek a medical diagnosis.

“We pretty much figured it out really quickly that it was anxiety, because the feeling would come on whenever somebody basically started talking about the race,” she said.

And there was plenty of talk.

Shiffrin racked up a streak of 15 straight slalom wins dating to February 2015 and entered a Jan. 3 event in Zagreb, Croatia, with a chance to tie the record for consecutive World Cup slalom victories. The media focused on it. Shiffrin couldn’t avoid it.

She straddled a gate in her first run in Zagreb, meaning she failed to finish a World Cup slalom for the first time in more than four years. The streak was over.

Shiffrin skied to the side of the hill and watched the next two racers go down.

“The first thing I thought was relief,” she said. “I’m not even sad. I’m so happy that nobody’s going to be asking me about that record for the rest of the season.

“And then I realized that I was totally letting everybody else’s expectations rule my own thinking, which is not something I’ve ever done. … After that race, it got better. It was like, who cares what the media is saying?”

Shiffrin also leaned on a sports psychologist for the first time in her career. Two or three hourlong Skype sessions and journal-like text messaging.

“She just reminded me of all the things I knew but kind of forgot,” Shiffrin said. “She reminded me of things like I’m in control of my emotions.”

The biggest races of Shiffrin’s season were Feb. 16 and Feb. 18 — the giant slalom and slalom at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Just before that, she watched the film “Invictus” about Nelson Mandela and the South African men’s rugby team at the 1995 World Cup.

From Feb. 15-18, Shiffrin posted on Instagram one stanza each day of the four-stanza poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.

The final stanza:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

Shiffrin raced in St. Moritz with the words “I am” scribbled in black on both of her lime-green gloves at the suggestion of the sports psychologist.

“No matter what people are telling you, everything depends upon how you perceive it,” said Shiffrin, who excelled at worlds with gold and silver in her two events. “I am in control of my emotions. This does not need to bother me. I can still make today a good day.”

The anxiety faded as the season wore on. Typical pre-race nerves remained, but the overall feeling shifted to exhaustion. By the World Cup Finals, Shiffrin said she wanted to sleep for three days (she actually spent her first three days home cleaning).

Shiffrin’s penchant for napping is well-documented. At a preseason camp in Chile, she and other U.S. teammates took a BuzzFeed test to determine their spirit animals.

Shiffrin’s was a sloth. She also picked up a nickname on that trip — #SirNapsALot.

She better rest up. What Shiffrin learned this season could benefit her for the gauntlet of the 2017-18 Olympic campaign.

She is looking at trying to race four, maybe all five individual events at the PyeongChang Winter Games, and could be favored for three medals.

Speaking about success and anxiety last week, Shiffrin remembered a line from Bode Miller, who used to say that winning downhill races never got easier.

“It’s harder, because I know how much effort and confidence and how much it took to win that race,” Shiffrin recalled Miller saying. “And I don’t know if I can do that again.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Bode Miller says ‘a lot of pieces’ necessary for possible comeback

French skiers to start in Lake Louise after David Poisson’s death

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS (AP) — The French skiing federation says its athletes will compete in Lake Louise at the first World Cup speed events of the Alpine season despite the death of David Poisson earlier this week.

The 35-year-old Poisson died on Monday in a crash while training at the Canadian resort of Nakiska, which staged Alpine skiing races of the 1988 Olympics.

The federation said in a statement Sunday that it has provided psychological support to all members of the French squad who were present in Nakiska when Poisson died, and that “all athletes decided to start the first speed World Cup of the season on Nov. 25-26 in Lake Louise, Canada.”

Poisson, who won the downhill bronze medal at the 2013 world championships, was training for the upcoming World Cup races in North America.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Alpine skiing season broadcast schedule

John Shuster, 30 pounds lighter, rallies for 4th Olympic curling berth

1 Comment

John Shuster is going to a fourth Olympics. It’s one more chance to prove Urban Dictionary wrong.

Shuster, 30 pounds lighter since his second straight Olympic failure in Sochi, led a team that beat Heath McCormick‘s squad at the U.S. Olympic Trials finals in Omaha on Saturday night.

Shuster, Tyler GeorgeMatt Hamilton and John Landsteiner lost the opener of a best-of-three finals series on Thursday.

They came back to deliver in a pair of must-win games, 9-4 on Friday night and 7-5 on Saturday, after spending each day at the Omaha Zoo.

The new-look Shuster — leaner and, at least this weekend, clutch — would astonish those who know him by scenes at the last two Olympics.

After taking bronze in 2006 as a role player, he led the last two U.S. Olympic teams to 2-7 records in 2010 and in 2014. Last place in Vancouver, where he was benched after an 0-4 start. Next to last place in Sochi.

After the last Olympics, the former bartender from Chisholm, Minn., was left off USA Curling’s 10-man high performance team.

He took it as motivation to get in shape.

Shuster, a father of a 2- and a 4-year-old who once said, “If I don’t have pizza three or four times a week, I’m not happy,” now totes meal replacement shakes. He’s starting to enjoy Olympic lifting.

Shuster, George, Hamilton and Landsteiner, all absent from that USA Curling high performance list, formed their own team. They became Team USA in their first season together and represented the Stars and Stripes at worlds in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Their results — fourth, third and fifth —  marked the best string of U.S. men’s or women’s finishes at that level in a decade.

Shuster is set to join Debbie McCormick as the only Americans to curl at four Olympics. The sport was part of the first Winter Games in 1924, then absent as a medal sport until 1998.

“I don’t think it’s about the four Olympics for me,” Shuster said on NBCSN. “What this is about — and what I’m about — is getting my teammates to now. I have two new Olympians on this team, and I know how special that is.”

George, the 35-year-old vice skip for Shuster, led a team that lost to Shuster in the 2010 Olympic Trials final. The liquor store manager from Duluth, Minn., is going to his first Winter Games.

As is the 28-year-old Hamilton, whose younger sister qualified for PyeongChang earlier Saturday.

Landsteiner, a 27-year-old corrosion engineer, played with Shuster since 2011, including in Sochi.

Alternate Joe Polo can go 12 years between Olympic appearances after taking bronze on that Torino team.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. Winter Olympic Trials broadcast schedule