Mikaela Shiffrin goes into the world Alpine skiing championships having played catch-up all season: a 300-day break between races after her father’s death, a back injury that delayed her return and a global pandemic that sliced her training more than that of European rivals.
Yet she won twice in 10 starts since November (about the career winning percentage for many of the greatest ski racers in history). She made two other podiums and hasn’t finished lower than sixth in any World Cup. Shiffrin is ranked third in the world in slalom and fifth in giant slalom, events she won at the Olympics.
“That’s a perfectly OK place to be,” she told NBC Sports this week going into Monday’s first race at worlds, a combined, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Shiffrin’s years of utter dominance — four consecutive world championships in slalom, World Cup wins in every discipline and three overall titles, including 17 victories alone in 2019 — came in seasons that were, in stark contrast to 2020, uninterrupted.
“Winning is not normal,” said Mike Day, one of her coaches since 2016. “She’s made it seem pretty damn normal over the last four years.”
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Little about Shiffrin’s career has been normal. Earning her first world title at 17 and her first Olympic title at 18 was not normal. Nor, before turning 26 years old, moving to third on the World Cup all-time victories list (now with 68).
The last 370 days haven’t been normal, either. Just when Shiffrin was emotionally ready to return to ski racing following her father’s death last February, the coronavirus prematurely ended last season in March. She flew from Colorado to Åre, Sweden, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, for the final races before they were canceled.
Then came a summer where ski training was replaced by learning about fixed income securities and other behind-the-scenes business that her dad handled. (“Feeling like I was in college, not feeling like I was a professional athlete,” she said.)
Shiffrin eventually flew to Europe for the start of the season in October, but tweaked her back, which cost her two more weeks of training and deferred her race return another five weeks.
Day said she recorded about 25% of the usual amount of skiing she gets during a seven-month offseason.
“Every day I feel like I’m still playing catch-up,” Shiffrin said, likening this season to being stuck in stop-and-go traffic “and slamming on the brakes every now and then.”
“Eventually, it will clear up,” she said, followed by a short laugh.
That kind of upheaval would seem to greatly affect a skier like Shiffrin, who is meticulous, relishes training and had no previous experience with curtailment. She had no major surgeries in her first decade on tour and only once missed significant time — two months in 2015-16 with an MCL tear, hairline fracture and bone bruise in her right knee that didn’t require going under the knife.
“It takes time to heal,” she said. “It takes time to get motivated in all the right places. It takes time to remember how to manage energy throughout races, and I also feel like I’m a bit of a different person and I haven’t had the same sort of happy-go-lucky, I-can-do-anything attitude that I’ve had before. It’s been a lot darker and a lot more self-deprecating and just generally not as positive for a while now, and those are also things I’m trying to sort through.”
Shiffrin does not know how far away she is from where she wants to be. There have been special moments this fall and winter, such as under falling snow and floodlights in Flachau, Austria, on Jan. 12.
“I know that I have the capability to ski really fast,” she said, “and if I do, I know [that skiing] has the capability to win.”
Even after the most limiting year of her career, Shiffrin will race more often at these worlds than any of her previous Olympics or world championships.
She entered Monday’s combined (one run super-G and one run slalom) and Tuesday’s super-G, defending her surprise title from 2019. The following week are her bread and butter — giant slalom and slalom.
“Her skiing is pretty good to be competitive in her core events,” Day said. “The super-G and Alpine combined are sort of longer shots with very little preparation.”
Shiffrin raced exclusively GS and slalom on the World Cup so far this season, passing on all speed races for the first time since 2014. She went an entire year between putting on super-G skis before getting four days of training in over the last two weeks.
She likely would not have entered Monday’s combined if the opening run was downhill and not super-G, as it has been in the past. She likely would have skipped Tuesday’s super-G, too, if not for her comfort at Cortina, where she raced five downhills or super-Gs in her World Cup career, including a super-G victory in 2019.
At every biennial worlds, Shiffrin remembers what happened at her debut in 2013. The 17-year-old who entered the championships No. 1 in the World Cup slalom standings was in third place after the opening run.
Steven Nyman, a 6-foot-4-inch American downhiller who had already been to two Olympics, noticed Shiffrin freaking out (her words) in the hospitality area before the second run. Nyman had Shiffrin take off her headphones. He reinforced that, unlike in the World Cup, there’s no points lead to protect in world championships races.
“You go for gold. That’s it,” Shiffrin recalled this week. “Everybody has the same exact mentality, whether they are leading after the first run, or they’re in third after the first run, or they’re in 30th.”
Shiffrin still began her second run a ball of nerves. “But [Nyman] got me psyched up,” she said.
She rallied to win that world championship, gabbed with David Letterman upon returning to the U.S. and hasn’t left an Olympics or worlds without a gold medal since.
“Over the years, I feel like there’s been a little bit more burden involved with ski racing, a little bit more weight, a little bit more pressure,” she said. “I don’t love that, but there’s always some moments where I feel that kind of thing — where it’s carefree and it’s like, the rest of the world, everything else just doesn’t exist anymore — and it’s just me skiing, and it feels like flying, or it feels like dancing. Those moments happen often enough that it keeps me feeling like it’s totally worth it to go through the moments of burden or pain or frustration or pressure or anything else.
“Because there’s not another thing that exists in life that I can imagine gives the feeling that ski racing does when it’s the best it can be.”
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