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.