Remembering Jeff Shiffrin, a rock in Mikaela Shiffrin’s mountaintop

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In the fall of 2017, I went to Colorado to interview Mikaela Shiffrin for a story in Sports Illustrated, my employer at the time and for many years prior. Shiffrin, then 22, had risen to the top of the alpine ski racing world and was among the presumptive U.S. stars at the approaching Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. She was a near certainty to win two medals, with the potential for two more. (She won two medals, including a gold in giant slalom; ski racing resists formful outcomes for many reasons. On balance, Mikaela did just fine under withering pressure and has roared forward since, deep into the sport’s record books).

For me, this trip exemplified the life of the Olympic journalist, an every-four-years immersion, replete with apologies to subjects for having stayed away in the interim. I had made the same sojourn four years earlier when Shiffrin, just 18, was on the verge of an Olympic breakthrough (she became the youngest slalom gold medalist in history). No complaints on the gig. The drive from Denver on I-70 through the mountains to Vail is a cleansing journey, climbing above the tree line and falling into deep valleys, the landscape splashed with insouciant evergreens, hardened by grey rock and accented with snowpack on high in the cold air. I had made the trip many times, on family ski vacations and to cover other competitions. A couple times to interview distance runners. As long as the sky was blue and roads clear, it was never a stressful assignment.

Plus, Mikaela and her family were an important and fascinating story that I was excited to report and write, again.

It was a little before noon when I arrived at the family condo. Mikaela’s mother Eileen was in the garage, assiduously organizing gear in advance of the team’s annual embarkment to Europe for the start of the World Cup racing season. Inside, Mikaela’s father, Jeff, was puttering around the house in a wrinkled, long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, a muscular, outdoorsy man with a slightly unkempt, bushy white mustache. Mikaela was showering after a workout. Jeff and I talked, killing time. Talked about skiing. About mountain weather. About medical  care (he was an anesthesiologist). About other ski racers. We talked about ceiling vent fans, because there was a balky one clattering away in the laundry room. Outside, the sun arced across the autumn sky and the temperature rose into the 60s. Talking with Jeff Shiffrin was like talking to that old college buddy who hasn’t been fundamentally changed by time.

It strikes me now that this day was, to me, a metaphor for the wonderful alchemy that made the Shiffrin family such a beautiful unit. (That past tense lands heavily). The story is often told: Jeff and Eileen met at a Boston hospital where Jeff was plying his trade and Eileen was a nurse. Jeff had been a ski racer at Dartmouth and Eileen a lifelong skier and solid age-group racer; they courted on mountainsides, married and raised two children, a boy named Taylor, and Mikaela. Years later, as Mikaela became a global star, Eileen became Mikaela’s most important coach, her traveling roommate, her soul sister. Jeff did everything else, often from a distance, with uncommon dignity. “Personally,” he said to me that day, “I stay out of it.” That wasn’t really true. He stayed out of the drama, but he was the rock.

You know the subtext of all this storytelling: Jeff Shiffrin died unexpectedly this week after an accident at home. He was 65. His death is a terrible loss, for the ski racing community, for the patients he attended at the hospital where he worked, and most of all for the three family members he left behind, now unmoored.

Mikaela posted to her social media accounts: “My family is heartbroken beyond comprehension about the unexpected passing of my kindhearted, loving, caring, patient, wonderful father. Our mountains, our ocean, our sunrise, our heart, our soul, our everything.”

There is a genuine American obsession with cracking the code to raising superstar children. Superstar musicians. Superstar students. Superstar athletes. The unspoken truth behind this fascination is that there is no code to crack. Ask any parent. There is life, and there are games and there is an uncertain path, dotted with obstacles that can only be managed within reason. The math prodigy suddenly discovers poetry. The violinist grows bored. The tailback blows out an ACL. Even beyond that, and more benignly, children will go where children go and do what children do. Apron strings are not sold in extra long. None of this absolves parents from seeking the best worlds for their kids, and it’s up to each set of parents to define and navigate that world.

The Shiffrins plotted an uncommon path for their kids. There was a high probability that Taylor and Mikaela would become accomplished skiers, via both DNA and repetition. As long as they liked it. But Jeff and Eileen did not approach this opportunity in the traditional manner, by force-feeding competition. Instead they did two things: One, they encouraged their kids to play as many sports as possible: Soccer, tennis, wind-surfing, even riding unicycles. (A parlor trick-slash-cross-training-bit that eventually found its way into every feature story about Mikaela). And two, they eschewed conventional training methods and didn’t worry about winning. “The goal,” Jeff told me for that first SI piece in 2014, “was to work toward mastery.”

A moment in Jeff’s early athletic life guided his vision. He was raised in Dover, New Jersey, 40 miles west of Manhattan; and learned to ski at Great Gorge (now Mountain Creek), in the northwest corner of New Jersey. It was there that he met an Austrian instructor whose only initial command was: “Follow me.’’ This sounds simple, but contrasts with conventional ski teaching, where beginners are taught the efficacy and control of the pizza wedge, in which skis are pointed in a V-shape to control speed and enable turning. Mikaela was never taught to pizza wedge. “Skis are designed to make smooth arcs in the snow,” Jeff told me. “That’s what we taught her.” (In fairness, there are surely plenty of little French and Austrian girls who learned similarly).

From that same SI piece: At the age of five, with the Shiffrins having moved to Colorado (Eileen and Mikaela would eventually bounce back to the East, and then back again), Mikaela enrolled in an after-school ski program at Vail Mountain. On the first day, the munchkins were told to ski down a short slope to the bottom, so that instructors could observe their technique and divide them into groups. Most pizza-wedged their way down the hill. Mikaela carved a series of wide turns and slammed to a stop at the instructor’s feet. The man looked at his clipboard and then looked at Mikaela and said, “I don’t have a group for you.”

Follow me.

As the years unfolded, Mikaela raced, but less than many in her age group. She advanced because she was excellent, not because she was prolific. It was counterintuitive, and mom and dad were always nearby, stressing form over outcomes. “Everyone wants to replicate what I’ve done,” Mikaela told me in ’14. “I remember skiing being a family recreational thing.”

The rest of the story is alpine legend. Mikaela reached the World Cup, the highest level of the sport, a few days shy of her 16th birthday. She has won three Olympic medals (two of them gold), five world championships and 66 World Cup races. Only Vonn (82), Ingemar Stenmark (86) and Marcel Hirscher (67) have won more, and while the lesson of this week’s loss is that none of us is promised a vibrant tomorrow, Shiffrin, who does not turn 25 until next month, can become the most accomplished ski racer in history.

Throughout this rise to the top of his daughter’s sport, and as Eileen became her daughter’s primary coach, Jeff Shiffrin publicly receded into the background. He was vital to her development and a loving father, but he never saw the need to slice off a piece of her spotlight for himself. In a culture where every major sports telecast seems to include endless reaction shots of parents in the gallery, his willingness to cede the stage was remarkable.

But it’s wrong to say Jeff wasn’t deeply involved. It was Jeff who chose former Austrian World Cup racer Kilian Albrecht as Mikaela’s agent/manager. “He was always thinking out of the box,” Albrecht wrote to me in an email this week. “That was probably the reason why I got to work with his daughter. He knew I would be valuable living in Europe and having been an athlete in the sport. I am forever grateful for that, as it’s not normal to get that trust.

“He was always focused on the task,’’ says Albrecht. “And not the noise around it.”

During my 2017 meeting with Jeff, we were talking about Eileen’s non-traditional role. It is not ordinary for an athlete’s mother to travel and to serve as her coach. The Shiffrins pay all of Eileen’s expenses, and always have. (Note: Eileen cut back her travel this winter, giving Mikaela more space; the future of that arrangement is obviously to be determined.) But Jeff did not hesitate to tell me that he understood who was in charge. “I suppose we could be demanding and just tell the U.S. Ski Team, `You have to pay her,’” he said. “But we don’t.” Then he shrugged and smiled, blue eyes twinkling over that mustache, a strong man in charge, and secure in his own skin.

When Mikaela won her first Olympic gold medal in Sochi, reporters found Jeff at the bottom of the hill with a camera around his neck, taking pictures to occupy his mind and his nerves, which he came to do often.

He was so proud that day. Mikaela nearly fell on her second run, but rescued the gold medal with a remarkable save. Jeff had been worried about his little girl, because she was visibly nervous at the team hotel. “No matter how steely you are, those nerves are in there,” he said. “You saw people with a lot more experience than Mikaela lose that battle.” Four years later, with Eileen up on the mountainside, Jeff was again at the bottom as Mikaela won two more medals. Over the years, he would periodically jet over to Europe for a few races, and then jet back home to work, yet always tethered to his daughter.

Back to 2017, now. Mikaela has emerged from the shower and is confidently answering my questions while sitting on the couch. Eileen sits down after a while and also answers questions. Meanwhile, Jeff continues to buzz around the house. He knows I have a late afternoon flight home out of Denver and he also knows that there is a weekend bottleneck east of Idaho Springs and that I’m pushing it.

“Tim, you’re going to miss that flight and your wife is going to be very unhappy.”

“Tim, we can always get Miki on the phone tomorrow morning to finish this up.”

“Tim, you really need to get in that rental car and go.”

Memories are personal. This was an insignificant moment in the broader world. But it was also, to me, the essence of Jeff Shiffrin. A celebrity dad, on top of the world, worried about somebody else. A man who will be missed.

Wilson Kipsang, former marathon world-record holder, banned 4 years

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Wilson Kipsang, a former marathon world-record holder and Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist, was banned four years for whereabouts failures — not being available for drug testing — and providing false evidence in his case.

Kipsang had been provisionally banned in January in the case handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit, track and field’s doping watchdog organization. Athletes must provide doping officials with locations to be available for out-of-competition testing. Three missed tests in a 12-month span can lead to a suspension.

Kipsang, 38, received a four-year ban backdated to Jan. 10, when the provisional suspension was announced. His results since April 12, 2019, the date of his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month span, have been annulled. He is eligible to appeal. The full decision is here.

Kipsang won major marathons in New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo between 2012 and 2017.

He lowered the world record to 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, a mark that stood for one year until countryman Dennis Kimetto took it to 2:02:57 in Berlin. Another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, lowered it to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, last won a top-level marathon in Tokyo in 2017. He was third at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and 12th at his last marathon in London in April 2019, a result now disqualified.

Other Kenyan distance-running stars have been banned in recent years.

Rita Jeptoo had Boston and Chicago Marathon titles stripped, and Jemima Sumgong was banned after winning the Rio Olympic marathon after both tested positive for EPO. Asbel Kiprop, a 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017.

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MORE: Christian Coleman suspended after disputed missed drug test

As Cullen Jones leaves Olympic-level competition, his mission is amplified

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Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?

That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.

Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.

His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.

Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.

“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”

Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.

“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.

“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”

Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.

Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.

More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)

We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”

Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”

Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”

Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”

By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.

At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”

“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”

Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.

Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.

“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”

The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.

He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.

“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”

Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.

Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).

After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.

When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.

But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.

He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)

Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”

Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.

He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.

“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.

“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”

Jones’ peers can attest.

Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.

Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.

“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”

Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.

“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”

Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.

“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.

Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.

“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”

In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.

“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”

Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.

There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”

“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”

The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.

The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.

“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”

MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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