Mikaela Shiffrin’s best season also brought the most anxiety

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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.”

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

Marvel superheroes inspire Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews

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Bradie Tennell and Starr Andrews have something in common beyond their obvious figure skating talents: both skaters look to Marvel superheroes for inspiration.

The 20-year-old Tennell, who opened her 2018-19 international season with a big win over two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia at the Autumn International Classic in Oakville, Ontario, counts Iron Man and Spider-Man as her favorites.

Believe it or not, Iron Man – also known as Tony Stark – figures into Tennell’s free skate to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“After I land the triple salchow toward the end of my program, I go down on one knee and do what I call my Iron Man pose, because that’s what Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.) does in the first Avengers movie,” she said.

Summoning superhuman strength worked. Tennell had a personal-best free skate in Oakville. But in other ways, she’s the opposite of her hero: Iron Man survives his adventures largely be wearing a special suit of armor, while Tennell is all about dropping her guard this season and being more expressive on the ice.

“I believe in myself a lot more,” she said. “I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Andrews, 17, is inspired by the noble and determined Black Panther, depicted in the 2018 film by Chadwick Boseman.

“There is always a challenge and you always have to fight to get what you want,” she said.

“I wanted something different this year, I definitely wanted no lyrics, and an African theme,” she added. “When I watched Black Panther, I said, ‘Yeah, I want something like (the music in) this’ and Derrick (Delmore) pulled up some music.”

Delmore, who coaches Andrews in Los Angeles, wracked his brain to find the right material. Ultimately, he choreographed her free to a medley he calls “African Tribal Xotica.”

“The music is from five different things,” he said. “She saw the movie, loved it, and sent me some music from that movie she cut herself that I didn’t love. She was inspired to do something in that genre. I finally thought of music I used a few years back for another skater, and I played it for her, and as soon as it came on she said, ‘Oh, this is what I want.’”

What Andrews wants now is a triple axel. She attempted the three-and-a-half revolution jump in her free skate in Oakville, but it was downgraded (judged short of rotation) by the technical panel. Still, she placed a respectable seventh in a tough international field.

“I’m excited for the day I get it,” Andrews said. “I just have to keep working on it. One day I will land it and will be super-confident and happy.  It’s not new to me, I’ve been working on it for a while. That little extra effort, and then I’ll land it.”

Only two other senior U.S. ladies – Tonya Harding, back in the early 1990s, and Mirai Nagasu at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February – have landed the jump in international competition, but Andrews believes it is becoming almost commonplace.  While Tennell and Andrews were competing in Oakville, Japanese teenager Rika Kihira landed two triple axels, including one in combination with a triple toe, at Ondrej Nepela Trophy.

“There are so many more people doing it know. I feel like it’s not surprising for women to do it,” Andrews said. “They are doing it in junior and even in advanced novice, like Alysa Liu (at the Asian Open), which was amazing.”

Delmore supports his student’s ambition, with a few caveats.

“Right now, I want her to get used to doing the axel,” he said. “I want it to be a regular part of her competitive experience, so she knows how to keep going when it doesn’t go well, and hopefully when she gets it, she knows what it’s like to have that amazing moment and to keep going.”

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic despite shaky performance

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Yuzuru Hanyu won his third Autumn Classic International crown in Oakville, Ontario on Saturday, but it was a bumpy ride.

The two-time Olympic champion’s debut of his “Origin” free skate, inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s famous “Tribute to Njinsky” program, had many fine elements: opening quadruple loop and toe loop jumps, plus two triple axels in the program’s second half; a pair of superb closing spins with fittingly baroque positions; and promising step and choreography sequences that preserved Plushenko’s flair, while adding a touch more refinement and control.

But a face-forward fall on a quad salchow, followed by a popped quad toe, meant Hanyu’s 165.91 points put him second in the free skate to his 16-year-old training partner, Junhwan Cha of South Korea. His total score, including Friday’s short program, was 263.65 points, just under four points higher than Cha’s second-place total.

At this point in the season, many other skaters – not including Plushenko – would have shrugged  off the imperfections in the challenging program and been happy to put a few miles on the choreography. But the 23-year-old Hanyu’s perfectionism runs year-round.

“My first competition of the season is always this level, unfortunately,” he said, as translated from Japanese. “I wanted to skate my short and free without any regrets here, and I was not able to do that.”

Hanyu likely remembers this event last season, when a mistake-riddled free skate put him second to longtime rival Javier Fernandez of Spain. This time around, the Japanese superstar, who trains at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, was especially disappointed that his jump glitches meant he could not attempt a quad-triple axel sequence, a combination that might have been worth some 20 points.

“I was not strong enough to skate this program yet,” he said. “I feel fine, I am not injured. Another program, maybe (last season’s) ‘Seimei,’ I might have been able to do well, but not this program. I am just not ready.”

Just as he did after Friday’s short program, where a botched spin cost him several points, Hanyu vowed to work harder.

“This is where I am right now, and I need to practice more,” he said.

Hanyu has plenty of time: his first Grand Prix event is in Finland on November 2.

The skating world may best remember this event as the week Cha came into his own. The Korean teen, who landed a quad salchow in his short on Friday, hit a quad toe to start his free to “Romeo and Juliet” – just the second time he has landed the jump in competition. While his quad salchow was judge under rotated, he went on to land two triple-triple combinations and two triple axels, all done with style and maturity beyond his years. The program earned 169.22 points to win the day.

“Last season, I didn’t skate so well. I had some hip and back (injuries) and boot problems,” Cha, who also said he had recently had a growth spurt, said. “Now I feel much stronger, and I have been working hard.”

Asked if he had a skating idol – perhaps his training partner, Hanyu – Cha demurred.

“I don’t have just one idol,” he said. “I like many different skaters, for different reasons. I will like one skater for his jumps; another skater for his spins.”

MORE: Tennell upsets Medvedeva at Autumn Classic

Canada’s Roman Sadovsky, fourth after the short program, stepped up to win the bronze medal with 233.86 points after landing two quads, a salchow and toe, in his free skate.

Jason Brown may be disappointed in his fourth-place finish here, but it cannot have come as a big surprise: the 2015 U.S. champion has said that since moving to Toronto this spring to train under Orser and Wilson, he has been re-learning his jump technique. He called the move “a four-year project.”

“I cannot speak more highly of Brian, Tracy, Lee (Barkell) and Karen (Preston), the whole team at Cricket Club,” Brown, 23, said. “They have been really been patient with me and worked with me methodically. … We’re starting from the ground up. Each day I’m learning something new, each day they are helping me work through something, whether that me a mental thing, physically getting a jump,  or the pacing of a program.”

The debut of Brown’s free to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends” and “Hazy Days of Winter” was bittersweet: his blades sung during spins, step sequences and transitions, but the jumps weren’t there. An opening quad salchow was doubled; a triple axel, popped into a single. He earned 144.33 points to place fifth in the free and fourth overall with 233.23.

Wilson, though, said they are just getting started.

“Let’s face it, he is a brilliant skater and he’s gotten close to the top of the world,” Wilson said of Brown, who was fourth in the world in 2015. “It’s a fine line trying to find room for improvement, and so that’s what we are trying to do. We are throwing a lot at him. We’re going to pull back a little.”

“What he brings, though, cannot be ignored,” she added. “My husband can be in the rink and know nothing about skating, and be mesmerized by what Jason does. He could teach clinics for every step sequence and position details. He is integral to what the sport needs.”

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