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.’’

Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi
Getty
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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth

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France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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