Tim Layden

Track and field Olympic Trials confirm the American “system” works better than ever

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Saturday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Allyson Felix did something she has done hundreds of times: She raced 200m, half the distance around a standard running track, beginning where only one race in the sport begins and finishing where all of them finish. At the starter’s command, she folded herself into her starting blocks and lowered her head, braids resting on her back. At the gun, she surged forward and into the curve that comprises the first portion of the race. Felix’s was the most accessible story in the race – a 35-year-old Olympic legend, mother and activist seeking to add the 200 to the 400m spot she had already earned in Eugene, ensuring participation in her fifth Olympic Games (even though the event schedule would preclude running those two events in Tokyo).

That narrative dissolved summarily, as 24-year-old Gabby Thomas, running a lane inside Felix, swallowed up the stagger between them in two dozen long strides and drifted away from Felix and, eventually, the rest of the field. Thomas won the race to qualify for her first Olympic team, and ran a time of 21.61 seconds; only Florence Griffith Joyner has run faster, 33 years ago. Felix finished fifth in 22.11 seconds, the same time she ran 18 years ago in Mexico City as a high school senior, announcing herself to the world of track and field. “I just didn’t have it,” said Felix afterward. “Right from the gun.” Thomas, meanwhile, very much did.

Hold that image.

The track Trials are always a rollicking endeavor, rarely hewing to form, 10 days spent rumbling down the tracks, wobbling and weaving, side-to-side, somehow reaching their destination and leaving the entire sport gleefully exhausted. This summer’s edition began with a doping controversy, and overwhelmed that on the first weekend with soaring performances (Shelby Houlihan might not agree fully). There were too many false starts and too few spectators (Covid takes much of the blame for that), and for last two days, competition was so bludgeoned by record-setting intense heat that the meet finished at 1 a.m. Monday in the Eastern time zone, with track fans either sleep-deprived or actually asleep, and it was still nearly 100 degrees in Eugene.

Nevertheless, come the finish in those wee hours, U.S. Track did what U.S. Track does best – it replicated itself. Some older athletes endured, others were supplanted by youth. But the team that alighted from Oregon is the strongest in the world by a wide margin, as it has most often been in the history of the Olympics. And it is one of the strongest assembled by the USA in the recent history of the Games.

This is a remarkable thing. Succession is central to every sport, which is why the NFL Draft, the NBA lottery and college football recruiting are quite nearly sports unto themselves, tethered to their mother ships, but with an entire sustaining culture around them. Track is no different in concept (i.e. replenishing the talent pool is a vital task), but entirely different in construction. Professional sports franchises and major college sports are businesses, with a front office corporate hierarchy. There are perhaps a dozen people in the Cleveland Browns’ draft “war room.”

American track and field is an enterprise that sprawls across the breadth of the country, from tiny rural towns to urban centers. If there was a war room filled with people tasked with facilitating sustained excellence in track and field, it would be the size of Toledo. In times of hand-wringing over the performance of Team USA in global championships, or when medal-hauling superstars reach retirement age; it is often asked whether the “American System” needs an overhaul to keep the victories coming. There is no American system. There are high schools and colleges and local junior track programs. There are thousands of coaches, teachers, volunteers and other supporters, the vast majority (but not all) modestly compensated, a quilt knitted together by a common passion for their ancient sport. (There are also shoe and apparel companies, whose support is evolving, but has historically been concentrated at the highest levels and often of scant value to developing athletes). Nothing needs overhauling.

It is less a system than a leap of faith, yet again and again and again, across time, years, Olympiads and generations, greatness is replaced by greatness, as if on an assembly line; a small miracle – a sports dynasty not manufactured, but left in the sunshine to grow. And damn if it doesn’t. So it was over 10 days in Eugene, where the entire disconnected enterprise came together in a ruthless and dispassionate selection process, because clocks and tape measures do not weep for those left behind.

Thomas’ Saturday night victory over Felix (Jenna Prandini and Anavia Battle also made the U.S. team in that event) was the quintessential Trials passage. Felix is track royalty, with nine Olympic and 18 world championship medals dating back 17 years, but as she has advanced into her 30s, she has spent increasing time in the 400m, a common sense concession to the inevitable loss of explosive speed. Thomas, a Texas native and Harvard graduate, was perfectly positioned to collect on this deficit, but her time was stunning – in the span of those 21.61 seconds, she shot past Marion Jones, Merlene Ottey (Jamaica), Felix, and a long list of former Eastern bloc sprinters, exceptionally fast company. “I cannot believe I put up that time,” said Thomas after the race. “Now I want more.” She is running in a rare place; Flo-Jo’s times have long been considered untouchable for and conceivable future (and to be fair, her world record of 21.34 from the Seoul Olympic final is still far out in the distance, but Thomas now has an obstructed view and a potentially long future).

Yet Thomas’ ascension was neither the first nor the last at these extraordinary Trials. For more than a decade, U.S. sprinters have chased Jamaica to recapture global pre-eminence in the Bolt Era; last weekend 25-year-old Trayvon Bromell won the men’s 100m and 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson the women’s 100. Bromell will be the Tokyo favorite and Richardson will test 34-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica in her dotage, and stands in position to succeed her. The helping to swing the pendulum back.

Likewise, U.S. men have historically dominated both the 110m hurdles and the flat 400m, but have been spotty in recent years, winning the hurdles just once in the last five Olympics and the 400m not since 2008. On Friday night, however, 23-year-old Grant Holloway ran the hurdles in a searing 12.81 seconds, just .01 off Aries Merritt’s 2012 world record, and cruised to an easy victory in the final. He will be the favorite in Tokyo, with that record within reach. Michael Norman, 23, ran a quiet 44.07 to win the 400m in Eugene, and could also be favored in Tokyo, pending the health of defending gold medalist and world record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who has wrestled with injuries since his lane-eight tour de force in Rio. Norman’s former USC teammate, Rai Benjamin, like Holloway, narrowly missed a world record on Friday night, running 46.82 in the 400m hurdles, just shy of Kevin Young’s revered 46.78, which has stood since the 1992 Olympics (and which Young himself never approached again).

All of this was prelude to a surreal Sunday night in Oregon. The historic heat wave which engulfed the Pacific Northwest had been predicted for days, but meet officials plowed through largely on schedule, moving only the women’s 10,000m and men’s 5,000m races to slightly cooler weather in the mornings, while retaining full evening programs. But when temperatures climbed toward 110 degrees on Sunday afternoon, the final four track events were shifted to later in the evening, along with the men’s long jump and the final event of the heptathlon. Athletes’ fragile schedules were tested, along with television fans’ stamina.

The first track event of the late night program brought generations together and produced a sensational – but as yet incomplete – torch passage. Two years ago at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, then-20-year-old Sydney McLaughlin chased a 29-year-old Dalilah Muhammad across the line in the 400m hurdles, narrowly taking silver behind Muhammad’s world record (52.16 seconds) and setting up a rivalry between a leader and a closer, nearly a decade apart in age, one rapidly improving, one nearing her peak.

On Sunday night in Eugene, Muhammad, now 31, went out hard, per usual, but McLaughlin, 21, two years stronger than in Doha, stayed in contact. When the two runners reached the straightaway, McLaughlin was even with Muhammad and floated away to the world record in 51.90 seconds, the first sub-52-second time in the history of the event. It’s tempting to suggest that McLaughlin will never look back, but there is an intriguing subplot: Muhammad was injured early this year and is possibly still short of full fitness, and still not capital-O Old. Another plot point for Tokyo.

There was no such uncertainty in the women’s 800m, where 19-year-old Athing Mu is the future of the event, in America and possibly in the world. Ignoring an early near-fall and the presence of American record-holder Ajee’ Wilson, Mu ran with breathtaking grace and upright power, walking away from the field in the final 100 meters to finish in 1:56.07, the second-fast time in history, behind Wilson’s 1:55.61 four years ago. Wilson is just 27, but the eight years between her age and Mu’s played like decades in this race. The last American to win the 800m at the Olympic Games was Madeline Manning (Mims) at the legendary Mexico City Games of 1968. The last U.S. medal was 33 years ago, Kim Gallagher in Seoul.

Minutes later in the men’s 1500m, another champion found track life coming at him fast. Matthew Centrowitz is among the best U.S. milers in history. He made the 2012 Olympic team at age 22 and finished an agonizing fourth in London, behind U.S. teammate Leo Manzano’s surprise silver. Four years later in Rio, more mature at 26, Centrowitz held off the world for the entire final lap and won America’s first 1500 gold in 100 years. Centrowitz failed to medal in two subsequent world championship appearances but emerged this spring reborn. He controlled his Friday night semifinal until joined the stretch by 20-year-old Cole Hocker, like Centrowitz a University of Oregon runner, but nearly a decade younger, like McLaughlin in her event. (Hocker just finished his freshman year at Oregon).

In that semifinal, Hocker, whose running style is as animated as Centrowitz’s is fluid, ceded first place to his elder, both runners smiling but revealing nothing as they cruised to the finish. In Sunday’s final, Centrowitz took the lead 500 meters out, in control, but Hocker sprinted alongside in the final 100 meters, this time ceding nothing, churning past a grimacing Centrowitz at the finish line, like flipping calendar pages on an older man. Hocker put his fingers to his lips at the finish, as if silencing critics. “This whole year I felt like I was proving myself to the world,” said Hocker. “But also proving my talent to myself.”

(There is a catch here: Hocker has not run the Olympic standard of 3:35. It’s possible he won’t be in Tokyo, although he’s in the mix with a high world ranking in a complex system. But it’s dead certain he’s going nowhere in the long view).

The compression of time was even more urgent for Noah Lyles. Five years ago at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene, he was an 18-year-old high school senior who scared the grown-ups with a fourth-place finish in the final, narrowly missing the team. He was anointed as the future of U.S. sprinting and subsequently ran 19.50 seconds for 200m (only Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Johnson have run faster) and won the 2019 world title. But a drop down to the 100m – and broader supremacy – has proved challenging; he finished fifth in the 100 in these Trials. In Friday night’s 200m semifinal, he was beaten to the line by slender, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, whose time of 19.88 broke Bolt’s junior record. “Shut it down the last 20 meters,” said Knighton after semi. Lyles, meanwhile, was living his own ’16 Trials in the body of another sprinter.

The final restored some order. Lyles ran a season-best 19.74, fastest time in the world in 2021, and won the race, with the ever-consistent Kenny Bednarek second. “I don’t think anybody can prepare for the lion you have to slay at the Olympic Trials,’’ said Lyles, both ebullient and relieved. But Knighton rallied from an awful start to finish third and make the team with withering top-end speed to the line. He is the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since Jim Ryun in 1964. He is also a living metaphor for the entire meet: The future chasing the present. As ever.

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At Olympic Trials, stories, performances strike at track and field’s complex heart

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There is this eternal struggle in track and field. A struggle between, on the one hand, the soaring egalitarian joy in which a giant shot putter with stubbly orange hair on his face and a tiny sprinter with flowing orange hair on her head, him so large and she so small that he comprises nearly three of her (and throws a ball that is just less than one-seventh of her body weight almost the length of a basketball court) can rise together; and on the other hand the ever-present shadow of suspicion, uncertainty and bureaucratic entanglements, a nearly fatal flaw, that stands beside every professional track, scythe in hand, head hooded in black, damning the entire proceedings and covering them in scandal, both real and presumed.

Four days before the start of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, a meet that is nearly as good as the Games themselves and even more enervating, came the news that Shelby Houlihan, a midwestern distance runner with a furious kick and American records in the 1500m and 5000m events, had been banned from competing for four years because of a positive test for a banned steroid. Not only was Houlihan out of the Trials, but at age 28, her career was toe-tagged at its peak. This was bad enough, for Houlihan (sitting in neutral on guilt-or-innocence for a beat) and for the sport. But when Houlihan claimed that her positive test was triggered by eating tainted pork in a burrito – a plausible explanation in 2021, even if not an accurate one, and who really knows? – the sport was heaved down a deep internet well of easy and bludgeoning humor. Attention was diverted away from a sensational event and landed directly on cynicism and snark. Track lol who’s eating the fastest burrito?

It was all too familiar, all too painful, all too frustrating. Meanwhile in Omaha, a few hundred miles east of Eugene, where the Track Trials would take place, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials unfolded in blissful simplicity. There were races. There were OIympians. Joy and hugs and tears. There was no extracurricular drama, just a sensational sporting event.

Track and field deserved the same. After all, it is nearly the perfect sport. It can be complex if you like it thus. A guy like NBC’s Ato Boldon can do 90 minutes, easy, on the first three steps of the 100m, every word of it fascinating. And don’t get any real track nut (easy now, it’s a term of endearment) started on triple jump or pole vault mechanics because that’s a like a biomechanics seminar. But it can also be blessedly simple, if you like it thus – first one to the finish line wins. Citius, altius, fortius, in the extreme. And what a show: Faces contorted, bodies of all different forms, colorful uniforms. It’s all there. But the drug thing holds the sport in its icy fingers, going all the way back to Ben Johnson. As if every track athlete has a laboratory in his bathroom, which the vast majority do not. But the image hangs on, and gets new life with a case like Houlihan’s.

This was the pretext for the Track Trials.

But then over four days and nights in Eugene, in a glittering new stadium that wasn’t allowed to fill, but sure wasn’t empty, something happened. Again. In the ongoing battle against itself, track and field not only survived the Houlihan scandal, but rose far above it. (The same cannot be said for Houlihan herself, and that is either justice served or a tragedy of over-regulation and collateral damage, and we will likely never know which. No getting past that.). A giant man filled a controversial place in the record book. A small, sensational woman announced herself at high speed. Two mothers ran one fast lap. A male sprinter completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. It was simple. It was complex. But it was no joke.

TRACK AND FIELD TRIALS: Results | TV Schedule | Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview

It started with Crouser, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound native Oregonian (Portland) who won the shot put gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and has since been chasing the event’s world record of 75 feet, 10 ¼ inches, set by Randy Barnes 31 years ago. Less than three months after setting that record, Barnes tested positive for a steroid and was banned for more than two years. Eight years later, he tested positive again and was banned for life. Barnes’s shot world record has long been considered suspect, a line of small type leering at the rest of the sport. (And not the only one).

Just past seven on Friday night, Crouser stepped into the shot circle for his fourth attempt. Three times his waved his right arm, asking for noise. He then spun twice across the circle and heaved – no, it was more graceful than that … flipped – the 16-pound shot into the blue sky. He immediately raised both arms, Steph Curry dangling a fishhook, Fernando Tatis, Jr., flipping his bat. “The second it left my hand I knew it was good,” he said afterward. It landed 76 feet, 8 ¼ inches away, a record by 10 inches, unfathomable.

I know what some of you are thinking: You break a dirty record, you’re dirty. At some point, that cycle of presumption has to stop. Because it is killing track. At some point, you believe. Crouser has never borne the whiff of scandal. There are no absolutes in track (or any sport), but replacing Barnes’ name in the record books with Crouser’s is a win. It just is.

Twenty-four hours later, 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson won the women’s 100m, with a long mane of orange hair trailing behind her and a cone of charisma as wide as her native Texas surrounding her. She won the final by daylight in 10.86 seconds, into a significant 1.0 meters-per-second headwind, but it was after running a blinding 10.64 (with an illegal tailwind) ninety minutes earlier in the semifinal – and pointing at the clock for the last 10 meters as if commanding it to freeze memorable digits, that she told NBC Sports’ Lewis Johnson, “I want the world to know I’m that girl.” (Richardson also said that her biological mother had died in the previous week, and went into the stands for a long embrace with her grandmother, but hasn’t elaborated publicly on the granular details of her life).

And there is surely power in her words to Johnson: I’m that girl. Track and field in its best form is a niche sport than crosses into the mainstream only on the backs of dynamic athletes with celebrity power. Like the recently retired Usain Bolt. Although the more obvious parallel is the late Florence Griffith Joyner, the 100m and 200m world record holder who won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics and never raced again after that year. She captivated a world far beyond the track not just with her transcendent speed, but with her flamboyant kits, her makeup, her fingernails (rarer then than now). She was Flo-Jo. Richardson is aware of the parallel and embraces it. In a 2019 Instagram post she wrote:

Y’all love talking about my hair & my nails like the greatest woman to ever enter the game didn’t run in style 🤣💅🏽 keep hating the player 😘 and y’all right we gone let them keep talking.

Like Flo-Jo, Richardson’s personal style has rankled some of track’s old-school fan base. This is a shame, but they will be left behind like her opponents, and it will be their loss. On the track, like Flo-Jo’s, Richardson’s style is tight, compact, powerful. Her start needs cleaning up, but she’s early in her career. A massive test lies ahead: Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has won two Olympics golds and four world championships in the 100m and recently ran her personal best of 10.63 seconds at age 35, the fourth-fastest wind-legal time in history and fastest by anyone other than Griffith Joyner. (Like Richardson and many others, S-A F-P has gotten a boost from Nike’s newest spikes. Says Boldon, who also coaches 19-year-old Jamaican Briana Williams, “Briana, who I coach, has the shoes. They are definitely a factor. I’ve seen the difference in the numbers with my own eyes. But I think it’s wrong to act like the shoes are responsible for huge improvements. They aren’t.” I asked Boldon if we are talking hundredths, not tenths. He said: “So far I think hundredths, but if Shelly-Ann runs 10.55, which I think she will, I’ll stand corrected.” (It’s not just Fraser-Pryce; on Saturday Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria, 32, also ran 10.63 seconds with a 2.7 tailwind, which still translates roughly to 10.84 in still air).

Last thing: As with Crouser, some have tried to muddy Richardson’s times because she is coached by Dennis Mitchell, who tested positive as an active athlete, and who coaches Justin Gatlin, who has been at the center of doping controversies for a decade and a half, some deservedly, some scurrilously. It is a yes, but routine that is almost reflexive. I know, because I’ve done it (and been both validated and not). But again, no. The cycle has to stop. The sport must be allowed to flourish in the moment. If there is a reckoning, let it come in its own time (and preferably without burritos).

Come Sunday night, the stage was ceded first to a pair of mothers. Quanera Hayes, 29, won the 400m in 49.78 seconds; she was followed by a bigger story, as 35-year-old Allyson Felix took second in 50.02 seconds to make her fifth Olympic team. They were joined on the track by Hayes’ son, Demetrius, and Felix’s daughter, Camryn, both born in the fall of 2018, both wobbling on toddlers’ legs as their mothers wobbled on oxygen-deprived ones. The moment was especially resonant because over the past two years, Felix – for most of her career reticent about taking strong stands – had publicly called out shoe and apparel companies for limiting the earning power and job security of women who took time off to have children.

But it was also resonant for the way Felix qualified. She tore through the first 200m near the lead, then fell back to fourth place entering the home stretch, possibly fifth place, a backward trend that is usually a recipe for certain defeat in the 400m. But from there, she grinded her way all the back to second with a combination of experienced relaxation and courage. “Man, it has been a fight to get here,” Felix said on the track. “And one thing I know how to do is fight, so I just wanted to do that all the way home.”

Trayvon Bromell can relate. Four years ago he was destined to succeed Gatlin and Tyson Gay as the alpha male of U.S. sprinting. But he tweaked an Achilles in the summer of that season and then blew it out chasing Bolt in the 4x100m relay in Rio. He left the track in a wheelchair and later underwent surgery, which customarily ends a sprinter’s career. Christian Coleman took his place and won the 2019 World Championship but now is serving a suspension for several times failing to be present for drug tests. Instead, Bromell won the Trials 100m in 9.80. With Jamaica’s dominance over for now, he’s looking at a long, clear lane to America’s first Olympic 100m gold since Gatlin’s upset win in 2004.

The list of moments is yet longer. World record holder Keni Harrison won the 100m hurdles, shaking the lingering Asafa Powell Big-Race Failure Disease that beset her in 2016, when she failed to make the U.S. team. (Although, complexity alert: 2016 gold medalist Brianna (Rollins) McNeal also earned a conditional spot on Team USA, but she is fighting a suspension in international court and may not be eligible to run).

Monday night brought heartbreak, and courage.

In temperatures north of 90 degrees, Elle Purrier St. Pierre, the top seed in the women’s 1500m, bounced away from an early collision and eschewed any tactics at all. “I just wanted to get out there, make it honest, make it fast,” she said afterward, and she won from the front in a Trials record 3:58.03, her best ever. It’s one of the races in which Houlihan might have run, and she surely would have tested Purrier. But her absence had become a distant sidebar (again, justice or tragedy – we don’t know) next to the race itself.  Burrito jokes had fallen silent.

The Trials also offer up a singular form of agony. Donavan Brazier won the world title in the 800m in 2019 and is the American record holder and joint-ninth-fastest man in history in that event, a genuine international star. But the Trials ask perfection on one night, and like Harrison, Brazier has occasionally struggled with big-race moments, and after fighting off 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy short of the bell, he faded to last, paying for an ill-advised move. Murphy won the race in 1:43.17. “There’s things that champions overcome, and I couldn’t overcome them,” Brazier said after the race. “So obviously, I’m not of that championship-caliber that I needed to be at.”

And in the last race of the Trials’ first half, Abbey Cooper finished a painful, near-missing fourth in the 5000m. Cooper – as Abbey D’Agostino – had snagged 15 minutes of Olympic fame in ’16, when she became entangled with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and fell to the track in a heat of the 5000m. She rose and helped Hamblin finish, but later needed ACL surgery. Last Friday she soloed the Olympic qualifying standard in winning a heat of the 5000m, a brave move, and hoped to finish in the top three Monday. Close, but not enough, but in her effort there was a painful joy that struck at the heart of track and field — the willingness to risk.

Four days on and four to go, a sport had healed itself, leaving scars, but not blood.

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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.’’