Mikaela Shiffrin readies for re-emergence in familiar place during unfamiliar time

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Two times this weekend, Mikaela Shiffrin will contest World Cup slalom ski races in the Finnish Lapland fell of Levi, more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 660 miles north of Helsinki. It is a place where daylight comes late and darkness early — “It’s dark right now,’’ said Shiffrin this week in a late afternoon video call from her hotel room. “Classic Levi’’ — and where the women’s World Cup returns early in every season. Shiffrin has raced in Levi seven times since the 2013 season, and only once finished worse than third, with four victories. It is a familiar place, in a familiar world. Except that in this moment, nothing is familiar to Shiffrin, and everything is different.

Saturday morning’s opening slalom run will be Shiffrin’s first race since a Super-G in Bulgaria last Jan. 26. Seven days later her father, Jeff Shiffrin, died at the age of 65 from head injuries suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado. When Shiffrin pushes away from the start house and dives into the first gate, nearly 300 days will have passed since that last race. She had hoped to race the season-ending events last March in Sweden, but those were cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic. So her wait stretched through 10 months of shock, of grief, of isolation, and of measured re-emergence. Of uncertainty. Of fear. Of everything.

Now she begins anew. “And I don’t know how it’s going to feel,’’ she said this week. “Honestly, racing might feel like more of a relief, and getting back in the start house will almost be like remembering what I do. Not who I am, but what I do. I’m a ski racer. You know? Not an accountant. A ski racer.’’

Not just a ski racer, one of the best ski racers in history. A genuine prodigy who made her World Cup debut on March 11, 2011, two days before her 16th birthday, Shiffrin has since won 66 World Cup races, the second-most by any woman (Lindsey Vonn has the most, 82, a record Shiffrin seemed — and still seems, but it’s slightly more complicated now — certain to crush in short order) and the fourth-most by any racer, male or female. She also has won five world championships and three Olympic medals, including golds in 2014 and 2018. She has specialized in the “technical’’ events of slalom and giant slalom, but in recent years expanded into the “speed’’ disciplines of downhill and Super-G, and had won six of those.

All this she had done with metronomic efficiency, otherworldly focus and a bludgeoning training load. In sport that sends every racer to the operating room (often more than once), she was rarely injured badly; her most persistent problem was pre-race nerves (leading to pre-race vomiting), which she was still fighting a year ago, though most often overcoming. It scarcely slowed the winning.

Her story was always a family story. Jeff Shiffrin and Mikaela’s mother, the former Eileen Condron, courted on ski weekends in New England and taught their children (Mikaela and her brother, Taylor) to ski naturally, flowing down hillsides. In a 2014 profile I wrote for Sports Illustrated, there was the story of five-year-old Mikaela’s first day in after-school ski classes, when kids were told to ski down to a clipboard-wielding instructor waiting at the bottom to assign them to teaching groups. One by one, the kids chugged down in cautious pizza wedges, until finally Mikaela arced smooth turns down the hill and slammed to stop. The instructor looked at her and said, “Well, I don’t have a group for you.’’ That was her parents’ teaching.

When Mikaela joined the World Cup, her mother went along, not just as mom, but as her roommate, hall monitor and, most of all, her primary coach. And yeah, her mom, too. The system worked splendidly; Mikaela won season titles in 2013, ’14, and ’15, and then the overall championship in ’17, ’18, and ’19. Some rival racers lobbed anonymous snark at Shiffrin for keeping her mother so close; jealousy was very much on the table.

Jeff Shiffrin, a practicing anesthesiologist, usually stayed home in Colorado and kept the logistical trains running on time for Mikaela and Eileen. “We called him the schedulizer,’’ says Mikaela. “Because he was command central for us. He was our personal travel agent, any time of the day or night. If we had issues — and we had a lot of issues — he was always there. If we had bad internet somewhere and I had to update my whereabouts for USADA, I would be like `Dad?’’’ (Here Mikaela’s voice pitches up into a sing-song, and it’s the voice of every little girl speaking to every father ever, just in that moment).

But there was another side, too. When Mikaela won her first Olympic gold medal, at Sochi in 2014, Jeff was at the bottom of the hill near the finish corral, taking pictures, and weeping. Just a dad in that instant, not the schedulizer.

How Shiffrin fills that void is the central question in her existence. Last spring, locked down at home — like the rest of the country — she thought about ending her career. “Yeah, retiring,’’ she says. “Or something. I don’t know if you call it retiring at 25 years old. And maybe I haven’t even peaked yet. It was just hard to think about ski racing.‘’ [Pause: That’s scary].

With a family member lost — family, writ large, felt more important than ever. “I always feel like my dad had a way of appreciating everything in life,’’ says Shiffrin. “The beauty of traveling, eating, the fun of skiing and the fun of working hard. He had a way of appreciating life more than I have. So I’m going to try to live up to that.’’ But when ski racing is thrown into the mix, it becomes more challenging. “There still has to be focus, to perform well, and to be safe,’’ says Shiffrin. `Because ski racing is not a safe sport. So I’m dealing with all of that.’’

One decision was clear: After taking a break from travel early last season, Eileen Shiffrin returned to the circuit in late December; she is with Mikaela in Finland and will stay with her as long as the season continues. (The global pandemic is heavily present in many mountain countries, leaving the schedule on uneven ground). “Last year, we made the decision for my mom to stay home,’’ says Mikaela. “She was missing her mother (Eileen’s mother died last October), she was missing my father, she was missing my brother… and it just wasn’t something I wanted to continue to ask her to do.’’ But Jeff’s death changed that. “I was like, `Please come with me,’ because I cannot do this without her. And hopefully she has the energy to keep doing this a little while longer, because I really don’t see me doing this without her, for the rest of my career.’’

When Mikaela returned to serious training in the summer, her mental recovery lagged behind the physical. Her laser focus had been her superpower, and it had become — understandably — unreliable. “There were random moments [in training] where I would just be like `Oh, it’s gone. My focus is just gone. I can’t ski anymore. I can’t focus anymore.’ Through my career, I’ve always been proud of my ability to bring that intensity when I need it. So looking for that, it’s kind of been a matter of figuring out how much I want to do this.’’

It’s a cruel addition that just as the season approached, she began having issues with her lower back, a common ski racer’s problem. She withdrew from the season-opening giant slalom on the glacier above Soelden, Austria, in October, and went back home to train and rehab. She took a week off skis, but stayed aggressive on dry land. Since then: “So far, so good,’’ Shiffrin says. “It’s been a long time and a long year, and we’ve all been through ringer. So I’m really looking forward to racing. I’ve been skiing well.’’

She comes back to racing as a manifestly changed person. Loss does that, pulling the rug of security from beneath unsteady feet. She has always been kind to a fault, and aggressively non-controversial, but the in spring and summer she used her Instagram account to post in support of Black Lives Matter and to encourage pandemic mask-wearing. “My parents always encouraged me to never be the loudest person in the room,’’ says Shiffrin. “And I’m not an expert on anything except ski racing. But some of these things, like wearing a mask in a pandemic, it didn’t feel like it was an opinion or a debate. I mean, this is humanity.’’

There was digital blowback, as ever. Social media is fickle. Followers were lost, which once bothered her, but no more. She can take it. Loss also thickens the skin.

Her present is a work in progress, her racing skills rusty and her emotions vulnerable. Finding her new normal can be painful work. “You could say one day at a time,’’ she says. “But it’s really one hour at a time.’’

U.S. men’s gymnastics team named for world championships

Asher Hong
Allison and John Cheng/USA Gymnastics
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Asher Hong, Colt Walker and world pommel horse champion Stephen Nedoroscik were named to the last three spots on the U.S. men’s gymnastics team for the world championships that start in three weeks.

Brody Malone and Donnell Whittenburg earned the first spots on the team by placing first and second in the all-around at August’s U.S. Championships.

Hong, Walker and Nedoroscik were chosen by a committee after two days of selection camp competition in Colorado Springs this week. Malone and Whittenburg did not compete at the camp.

Hong, 18, will become the youngest U.S. man to compete at worlds since Danell Leyva in 2009. He nearly earned a spot on the team at the U.S. Championships, but erred on his 12th and final routine of that meet to drop from second to third in the all-around. At this week’s camp, Hong had the lowest all-around total of the four men competing on all six apparatuses, but selectors still chose him over Tokyo Olympians Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus.

Walker, a Stanford junior, will make his world championships debut. He would have placed second at nationals in August if a bonus system for attempting difficult skills wasn’t in place. With that bonus system not in place at the selection camp, he had the highest all-around total. The bonus system is not used at international meets such as world championships.

Nedoroscik rebounded from missing the Tokyo Olympic team to become the first American to win a world title on pommel horse last fall. Though he is the lone active U.S. male gymnast with a global gold medal, he was in danger of missing this five-man team because of struggles on the horse at the U.S. Championships. Nedoroscik, who does not compete on the other five apparatuses, put up his best horse routine of the season on the last day of the selection camp Wednesday.

Moldauer, who tweeted that he was sick all last week, was named the traveling alternate for worlds in Liverpool, Great Britain. It would be the first time that Moldauer, who was fourth in the all-around at last fall’s worlds, does not compete at worlds since 2015.

Though the U.S. has not made the team podium at an Olympics or worlds since 2014, it is boosted this year by the absence of Olympic champion Russia, whose athletes are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. In recent years, the U.S. has been among the nations in the second tier behind China, Japan and Russia, including in Tokyo, where the Americans were fifth.

The U.S. women’s world team of five will be announced after a selection camp in two weeks. Tokyo Olympians Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles are in contention.

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Paris 2024 Olympic marathon route unveiled

Paris 2024 Olympic Marathon
Paris 2024
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The 2024 Olympic marathon route will take runners from Paris to Versailles and back.

The route announcement was made on the 233rd anniversary of one of the early, significant events of the French Revolution: the Women’s March on Versailles — “to pay tribute to the thousands of women who started their march at city hall to Versailles to take up their grievances to the king and ask for bread,” Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet said.

Last December, organizers announced the marathons will start at Hôtel de Ville (city hall, opposite Notre-Dame off the Seine River) and end at Les Invalides, a complex of museums and monuments one mile southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

On Wednesday, the rest of the route was unveiled — traversing the banks of the Seine west to the Palace of Versailles and then back east, passing the Eiffel Tower before the finish.

The men’s and women’s marathons will be on the last two days of the Games at 8 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET). It will be the first time that the women’s marathon is held on the last day of the Games after the men’s marathon traditionally occupied that slot.

A mass public marathon will also be held on the Olympic marathon route. The date has not been announced.

The full list of highlights among the marathon course:

• Hôtel de ville de Paris (start)
• Bourse de commerce
• Palais Brongniart
• Opéra Garnier
• Place Vendôme
• Jardin des Tuileries
• The Louvre
• Place de la Concorde
• The bridges of Paris
(Pont de l’Alma; Alexandre III;
Iéna; and more)
• Grand Palais
• Palais de Tokyo
• Jardins du Trocadéro
• Maison de la Radio
• Manufacture et Musées
nationaux de Sèvres
• Forêt domaniale
des Fausses-Reposes
• Monuments Pershing –
Lafayette
• Château de Versailles
• Forêt domaniale de Meudon
• Parc André Citroën
• Eiffel Tower
• Musée Rodin
• Esplanade des Invalides (finish)

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