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.
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.”
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