Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on December 9th, 2022. With a giant slalom victory in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia on January 8th, Mikaela Shiffrin won her 82nd career World Cup race, tying Lindsey Vonn’s female record. For the latest updates on Shiffrin and the alpine skiing season, visit OlympicTalk.
Sometime in the coming weeks, U.S. alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin will presumably — presumably being a very loaded and problematic word here — win her 83rd race on the World Cup circuit, the highest level of her sport, thus passing fellow American Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman. Not long after that, she will presumably win her 87th race, one more than Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who won his 86 races from 1975-89. With that win, Shiffrin, who will turn 28 in March, will have accumulated more career victories than any ski racer in history, and will have ended a chase that has been ongoing and presumed for the better part of a decade. She will be deservedly celebrated for this achievement.
That celebration will undersell the moment and give Shiffrin a lesser form of praise than she deserves, because that is what career records do, just by existing. Career records compress the pain and struggle of an athletic career into a single, antiseptic number: the most this, or the most that. Touchdown passes, base hits, goals, sub four-minute miles. It will be said that Shiffrin’s record is the result of sustained brilliance, and that is manifestly true. It will be said that she packed her victories into a shorter period — 12 seasons — than either of the final two racers she passed; Vonn raced 18 seasons and won No. 82 at age 33, while Stenmark raced 16 seasons and won his last race at age 32. So this will also be true.
But these descriptions will soften the toll of Shiffrin’s work, because that is also what career records do. They simplify the complicated and sand down the rough edges, in service of the myth that the chosen number was inevitable. This was particularly true with Shiffrin: She was a prodigy, whispered — and then shouted — about across the breadth of the sport when she was barely in her teens, as the next big — and possibly biggest — thing. She won her first World Cup race at age 17 and an Olympic gold medal at 18 (the 2014 slalom in Sochi). She won a remarkable 17 World Cup races in the season that ended on March 17 of 2019, just four days after her 24th birthday. At that point she had won 60 World Cup races and seemed likely to blow past Vonn and Stenmark in as little as two more seasons. Hosanas were readied.
It has not played out exactly like that. In the three-plus seasons since that remarkable 2019 campaign, Shiffrin has won a total of 16 races (40 of Shiffrin’s 76 wins were crammed into three hyper-successful seasons from 2017-’19). She has changed since then, and she has been changed — by personal tragedy, by injury, by the realization of personal and professional mortality which young athletes deny successfully and older athletes either deny unsuccessfully or accept and fight against. What seemed easy has become much more difficult. (Of course, it was always difficult, Shiffrin just made it look easy, which is what the exceptional among us do.) And she has endured, most of all.
“For the last two years, I’ve had a note with something I wrote down,” Shiffrin said last weekend from her World Cup base in Europe. “It says, basically, what I would like most in life is to go back, like two-and-a-half years. I want to go back to where I was at the start of the year right after that 17-win season. It was my greatest season ever, and I was so happy. And I’d give anything to go back to that feeling.” She does not say this as if saddened, but as if enlightened, a very different thing.
The arc of Shiffrin’s life and career following that 2019 season is well-known to ski racing fans and even to a broader audience that witnessed her struggles in the 2022 Olympics. (More on that upcoming.) Just before the start of the 2020 World Cup season, Shiffrin’s 98-year-old grandmother, Pauline Condron, died. It’s reflexive to diminish deaths of the very old, but loss is loss and Shiffrin was very close to her grandmother. Shiffrin won six races from November to late January — not the pace of her previous season, but not shabby. On Feb. 2, 2020, her father, Jeff, died from an injury suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado, while Mikaela was racing in Europe. From that moment forward, Shiffrin has carried extra weight.
As we talked last week, I suggested to Shiffrin — and again, this is not revelatory in tracing the life of an athlete, or a human being — that what had been a certain kind of innocence had become significantly more complicated in the last few years.
“When I was 16, 17, 18 years old,” says Shiffrin. “I didn’t know many people who had passed away. Since then, two of the five most important people in my life have passed away. They’re not here anymore. And that number is not going to get smaller as I get older.”
After the death of her father, Shiffrin did not race for over 300 days, much of that time during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which World Cup racing continued with relatively few cancellations (although with many interruptions and absences, and of course, no spectators). She returned and won three races in the 2021 season, pushing her total to 69. Content that highlighted her status in that moment often noted that she was “back.” She was not back. She will never be “back” in that simplistic, sports-centric way.
“Coming back to racing after my father passed,” says Shiffrin. “So many people said, ‘Well, you’re back.’ And then I won again and people said, ‘Wow, you’re really back.’ Actually, I was still really struggling.”
At the end of the 2021 season, Shiffrin won four medals at the World Championships, including a gold in the combined downhill-slalom event. She won four more World Cup races before the ’22 Olympics, but did not perform well in Beijing. She skied out early in both the giant slalom (stunning) and slalom (jaw-dropping), and then, after finishing– but not contending — in the speed events of Super-G and downhill, skied out in the slalom portion of the combined. It was an inexplicably poor performance that was endlessly analyzed in real time, including by Shiffrin herself, because she does not shy from public self-analysis, however painful.
Since then, on the one hand, she acknowledges that the experience left scars, because of course it did. At the same time, “I mean, people ask me about it,” she says. “Less and less on a daily basis, but I try to get the message out that I’m moving on.” Some of it will always be a mystery. “In the slalom and giant slalom and the combined, I went out at the fourth gate, the fifth fate, the ninth gate, but I skied those gates exactly how I wanted to ski them. I’m not one to DNF, usually. And in those races, I did not picture myself skiing out of the course, that’s for sure. But I did.”
Ten months have passed since that experience; three years since the deaths of her grandmother and father. This year she won World Cup slaloms in Levi, Finland, on consecutive days, Nos. 75 and 76. And then on Thanksgiving weekend at Killington in central Vermont, a home game on a hill where she had won five slaloms in five starts, she finished fifth (and 13th in giant slalom).
In all of this, the personal tragedies and the racing struggles, her relationship with her sport has evolved. The giant slalom finish in Killington she assigns to training too little this year in the discipline. The rest is more ethereal, more mental. “I’m in the middle of this whole, season-long epiphany, and maybe the Olympics sparked it, of how hard it is to not only win a ski race, but to make it to the finish. That’s not something I’ve struggled with for most of my career, but when you think about it, in ski racing, and you add up the changing conditions, the amount we care, it’s mind-boggling to me what I’ve done for the last 12 years.”
If that sounds like a lack of confidence, maybe, but that’s too simple. Consider it both a mature appreciation and a return to her roots as a racer. Jeff Shiffrin taught his kids — Mikaela and her brother, Taylor — to embrace the process of skiing artfully and to let the wins flow from that. “Any time I’ve started a race trying to win, instead of skiing my best, I have not won that race. But there is such an adrenaline rush to our sport, before you even win the race, and I’m still here for that. If I was here just for the winning, I would have retired by now. Because I’m close to 82 and 86, people find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I’d be done by now.”
She’s not done. Shiffrin thinks about what might come next, and concludes what most athletes conclude: “Anything else I do in life is probably going to be hard, but most other things are not going to give me as much back as ski racing has.” The 2026 Olympics will be jointly hosted by the city of Milan and the mountain resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, an iconic ski racing venue. “Anything could happen, and I could decide to retire,” Shiffrin says. “But I don’t see it happening before the [next] Olympics.”
Unfinished business? (And to be fair, despite Beijing, Shiffrin has three Olympic medals; the only U.S. woman to have won more is Julia Mancuso, with four.) “Not medal-wise,” she says. “But the last three Olympics have been in places that have nothing to do with alpine skiing, normally.” [Boy is that right: Sochi, PyeongChang, and Beijing.] “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” A mouthful.
Before that, 82 and 86 await. Shiffrin will race a giant slalom and slalom this weekend in Sestriere, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic and Paralympic alpine races. From there, the World Cup grinds on, with 13 more slaloms and giant slaloms beyond that, and numerous speed races, should Shiffrin decide to race those as she often has in the past. There are plenty of opportunities to finish this job, as it were.
Yet she understands, most of all, that nothing is promised, not even life, and certainly not ski race wins. “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race,” she says. Presumably. “But I also know you can’t be certain.” And that is the lesson that will make the records most meaningful.
For more on Shiffrin’s 2022-23 season, visit OlympicTalk.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.