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Mikaela Shiffrin’s dance with gravity hasn’t always followed the fall line. Pitch breaks the ice on what makes the American racer 2023’s Sportswoman of the Year.
Beijing Winter Olympics 2022
Sitting on the man-made snowpack near the top of the slalom course at Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre for nearly 20 minutes, Mikaela Shiffrin was frozen in her thoughts. Transfixed in place.
She had fallen for the second time in three days. The World Champion had failed to finish a race at the Beijing Olympics, and on this occasion, had skied just five seconds into the first run of her best event.
Shiffrin is so consistently good at slalom (the art of carving in-between red and blue poles set four metres apart) that two weeks before arriving in Beijing, she registered a record-breaking 47th World Cup win in the discipline. For context, Dave Ryding, Britain’s greatest-ever slalom export – brilliant in his own right – has one World Cup slalom win to his name. And by his own admission, “they’re not easy to come by”.
That previous world record was set by Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark and stood for some 32 years. For his life’s work to be blown out the water by a 26-year-old, not yet at the peak of her powers was good reason for ‘Miki’ to be nailed-on favourite in Beijing.
She was then a four-time world champion in the event and already owned an Olympic slalom gold from Sochi. Coming into 2022, the media decided that she should win three individual gold medals – something no American skier had accomplished at a single Olympics – but could win five. In essence it was a question of by how ‘far’ for the Ski Queen rather than by how many she might win.
The era-defining 88-time World Cup race winner, Mikaela Shiffrin, clad in neon for Team USA. Pink poles, red skis, florescent accents and that ever-present blue Barilla helmet. Unmissable. | Red Bull Media House
A fall – three to be precise – was as much a shock to Shiffrin as it was to everyone watching. The aftermath was reminiscent of the Tokyo Olympics – when gymnast Simone Biles lost her bearing in midair, leaving the arena to decide what to do next. Unlike the gymnast, left sitting on the ice, Shiffrin had nowhere to go.
Failing was not an emotion she was accustomed to. The American needed a moment to sit with her thoughts. "There was nowhere to hide. I was trying to figure out how I could disappear from the mountain and melt under the fence," the two-time Olympic champion admitted in late April that year.
And it’s not that falling is unheard of – particularly in Beijing – the man-made snow had created such demanding conditions that 38 of the 88 skiers who entered the women’s slalom failed to finish.
"I was trying to comprehend a situation that's not something I had previously wrapped my head around," Shiffrin told ESPN in May – attempting to remember how she felt that February when she lifted her head from the snow. "I didn’t know what to do, or what the rules were. It was isolating. That Olympic chance was gone. Again."
She doesn’t pretend it wasn’t hard. Devastating, even. When you’ve won so often – six overall World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, more victories in alpine skiing’s top flight than any other athlete in history – the bitter taste of coming up short under any circumstances will never be easy. Nor should it.
But as the 26-year-old American stood at the bottom of the women’s super-G course, having crossed the finish line for the first time in three races at those Olympics, the familiar smile that had been absent throughout the most arduous week of her professional life was back. Albeit briefly.
It wasn’t the result she wanted. Shiffrin needed a time of 1:14.3 but came in 0.79 seconds too slow. That famous smile still told a story, beneath a pale blue sky on the south side of Xiaohaituo Mountain.
Simply making it down the ice-packed track, known as the Rock, and finishing ninth overall wouldn’t ordinarily be enough to feel good. But this had been the lowest week of her career. A career previously defined by highs not lows. Least of all an all-time professional low.
“It felt really nice to ski that,” Shiffrin concluded at the time. “There’s been a lot of disappointment over the last week. There’s a lot of emotions. It was not easy to reset and approach the slope today.
“Falling three times at the Olympics is not the worst thing that’s happened in my life,” she told ELLE magazine after the events close, alluding to the sudden death of her father in February 2020. “I know I can do what it takes to win again, and I’m not scared of that. Standing at the bottom of that run was the freest I’ve ever felt, free of all the pressures, just standing at the bottom looking back up. Reflecting.”
At that moment, Shiffrin ‘bottomed out’. In the past, she might have concealed it with banalities about being mentally tough or pushing through the pain. This time, in order to move on, she needed to only look back.
Her resolutions made at the beginning of the following season were indicative of more of a veteran’s approach. “I’m a different person than I was, and I don’t want to hide what I’m feeling anymore. I don’t care that I didn’t win a medal, I knew I would work hard enough to get back into a position where I can.”
The Start of a Peerless Winter
Relieving herself of a world of pressures, working hard is what she did. Entering the 2022-23 season with 73 career wins, Shiffrin was simply unstoppable last winter. The alpine skier began her title defense on November 19 in Levi where she topped the rest of the field twice in one weekend.
She would go on to collect a further 13 wins across all disciplines in the seven months that followed, never as much as breaking stride or sweat as she went. Having already won five overall World Cup titles, her 87th and record-breaking win came on March 11, surpassing Stenmark’s record of 86.
The Swede knows his numbers well, following Shiffrin’s races with a keen eye he told the associated press that “she’s much better than I was. You cannot compare. She has everything: good physical strength, superb technique and a strong head. I could have never been so good in all disciplines. I’m in awe that she can ski well in slalom, super-G and downhill as well – they require completely different skill sets.”
Crossing the finish line for an 88th gold in Soldeu, Andorra, a week after her record-breaking 87th – Shiffrin again spared herself a moment to look back up at the slope. This time she was reflecting, for more positive reasons.
Shiffrin welcomes her fifth Overall Crystal Globe, the title presented to the skier with the most number of wins across all ski racing disciplines; Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, Parrallel & Combined. Shiffrin is the first person to win World Cup races in every discipline. | Red Bull Media House
Ending the season with the Overall, Slalom, and Giant Slalom (GS) titles, one World Cup gold and two more World Championships, Shiffrin had claimed back what everyone in skiing felt was rightfully hers. Statistically, mathematically, technically – even emotionally speaking – she had announced herself as the greatest skier of all time.
But why this year? Why is her sixth overall Crystal Globe – awarded to the best skier across all disciplines – so special? Surpassing fellow countryman Lyndsey Vonn’s record of 82 wins in January makes for pretty good reading. As does winning in Italy, Slovenia, and Finland (twice) among many others making up for the majority of Europe, the US and Canada.
As you might expect, ‘wins’ have been a constant throughout her career – from her very first aged just 17 in Schladming to her most recent in Soldeu. The difference is that this season saw a mature Shiffrin poke her head above the parapet of media attention. Her recent success down to not caring what others make of her. It’s a refreshing change in mentality that sees her more relaxed at the start gate – no longer throwing up from anxiety as she would before – free of outside pressures and enjoying life for what it is.
"I'd be fine in life without another gold medal”, she told Reuters this October, “look at Novak (Djokovic), that’s the only thing he hasn’t won. I have enough gold for now. As does he.”
Still feeling the need to validate her position at the top of her sport with ‘only’ two Olympic golds, she goes on: “World Championships are big events, the medals are coveted by skiers and hold equal if not more value than those at the Olympics. There’s pressure, you have all the media surrounding it. And it requires performances over the course of a season. It’s no fluke.”
Again, reflective of where she had come from to find that state of mind, the three-time Olympic medalist continued. “No matter how much success I’ve had in my career, it was like a constant battle of trying to prove my worth. Now I feel I don’t need to. Others will continue to ask, yes. But for me, there's nothing left on my to-do list, to be perfectly frank.
“It became hard for me to separate who I am as a person, or even my self-worth, from my races.”
The best stories are rarely straightforward. Shiffrin’s chairlift to the top has been a long ol’ slog. Both mentally and physically. Her title as the greatest to do it has been won rather than given.
It’s been a good year for Shiffrin. As good as it gets, even. At the time of writing, the 28-year-old is preparing to line up in the Austrian resort of Sölden – the season commencing with its traditional GS event down the Rettenbach glacier. It’s an event Shiffrin was unable to win last year – it being cancelled due to adverse weather conditions – making the American that little bit hungrier for her 89th title.
Mikaela Shiffrin tears down the Giant Slalom course in in Tremblant, Canada. December 3, 2023. | Getty Images Sport.
Looking further ahead to the Milano-Cortina Winter Olympics in 2026 – and after scratching around Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022 looking for snow – the two-time gold medalist said she was happy to see the Games return to a venue that was "more typical" of Alpine skiing.
As for her own future, given everything she has achieved – as most great athletes do – she now turns to compete against herself. With the technical disciplines of slalom and GS all but ‘completed’ she looks to the faster disciplines of downhill and Super G. “I still somehow feel like I want to keep skiing. I want to see how far I can go in the sport. How much faster can I ski.”
Lyndsey Vonn – four-time World Cup winner herself – reckons Shiffrin can go far beyond a third Olympic gold. “With Serena Williams stepping away from tennis, there’s room for another global female sports superstar. Mikaela can seize that opportunity. The sky’s the limit, she could reach 100 wins this year with ease. And from there, who knows?”
If she matches last season’s return, Mikaela Shiffrin will do just that. But for her, no such target will be set. Her fresh outlook on life means, “sometimes,” she says, “the simple act of trying is all you can ask.”
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