All-conquering American is synonymous with success but will be remembered more for the humility shown at her lowest ebb
She doesn’t pretend this isn’t hard. Devastating, even. When you’ve won as often as Mikaela Shiffrin – three overall World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, more victories on alpine skiing’s top flight than all but two people in history – the acid taste of coming up short under the brightest lights 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 on Friday having crossed the finish line for the first time in three races at the Beijing Olympics, the familiar smile that’s been absent throughout the most arduous week of her professional life was back.
It wasn’t the result she wanted. Shiffrin needed 1min 14.30sec to negotiate the icy track known as the Rock, coming in 0.79sec behind the early leader and eventual gold medalist Lara Gut-Behrami, of Switzerland, beneath a pale blue sky on the south side of Xiaohaituo Mountain.
But simply making it down the course and finishing ninth overall was reason enough to feel good amid the lowest week of a career defined by dizzying highs.
“It felt really nice to ski that today,” Shiffrin said. “There’s been a lot of disappointment over the last week. There’s a lot of emotions. [It was] not really easy to reset and know if I was up for the challenge today.
“The track itself is beautiful, and it’s sunny, and the snow is amazing. Coming back out and getting the chance to race again was just the perfect thing to do, actually.”
Shiffrin’s disqualifications for missing gates early in her opening runs of Monday’s giant slalom and Wednesday’s slalom were unexpected enough. After all, the Colorado native had failed to finish a race only twice in four years entering the Beijing Games – and a total of 13 times in 228 starts across all disciplines at World Cup, Olympic and world championship events.
The shock was compounded by the fact they happened in two of her best events – the disciplines at the foundation of her dominance and metronomic consistency – striking destructive blows to her confidence. Not since December 2011, when she was 16, had Shiffrin failed to make it to the bottom in back-to-back technical races.
Her ninth-place finish on Friday came in the speed race which she has only contested twice in the past two months on the World Cup circuit (where she is once again the overall points leader). She opted to skip the super-G entirely at her first two Olympics, but winning it at the 2019 world championships made her a strong contender to reach the podium in Beijing.
That was before Shiffrin was unable to navigate more than 12 gates in her first two outings, throwing her plans of entering as many as six events at these Olympics into question. Battered by self-doubt and battling what she described as “emotional fatigue” after her nightmarish start, Shiffrin went through three training runs on Thursday before deciding that she felt OK to race.
“I feel emotionally weary right now, there’s just a sense of dullness, and you can’t have that racing, especially not racing speed,” Shiffrin said. “But when we got out today I just felt a little bit more settled, a little bit quieter, trying to keep some calmness and just trying to focus on the task at hand so I could put my attention where I wanted and ski the hill and the course properly.
“It’s a really big relief to be here now in the finish, having skied a run well. I wasn’t skiing safe or anything, but I also did get to the finish and that’s really nice for my heart to know that it’s not totally abandoning everything I thought I knew about the sport.”
Athletes at the Olympics are under no obligation to speak with the media while passing through the mixed zone after an event. But after both of her DNFs and again on Friday, Shiffrin has spent hours fielding a stream of questions. Even more impressively, she did not simply resort to the canned soundbites that are amply within the scope of her years of media training, but gave lengthy, thoughtful and considered responses that have shown her grappling with a crisis of confidence.
On one hand Shiffrin’s professionalism comes as no surprise. She has always embraced the responsibilities that come with being the face of a sport and, for a second straight Winter Games, the tentpole of NBC’s breathless promotion of the Olympics in the United States.
But the real test comes when not everything is falling your way. And she’s handled all of it with a remarkable self-awareness, humility, empathy and often brutal honesty.
Throughout Friday’s marathon session with the press, Shiffrin acknowledged her crushing disappointment and confessed to a sometimes unhealthy obsession with competition in one moment while maintaining a balanced perspective on her blessed life and career in the next.
“A lot of athletes have said before pressure’s a privilege, and it truly is, to be in the position that I come to the Olympics and I’m a contender, and actually expected to medal in multiple events,” she said. “That’s spectacular. It says a lot about the work that my whole team, we’ve all done to this point.
“But it’s an enormous letdown when it doesn’t happen. I can go back and say I’ve won medals before in my career and that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t take away any hurt or disappointment from these races. I think it’s possible to feel both proud of a career and sad for the moment you’re in.”
The direct and transparent manner in which Shiffrin has managed this trying hour – not falling back on credible excuses like the back injury that limited her preparations in November, or the bout with Covid that sidelined her in December, or the all-encompassing grief over the unexpected death of her father, which caused her to openly contemplate retirement – has laid down an example that everyone can learn from: life goes on.
“Failure is a scary word, and disappointment, all the negative words, because we’re supposed to be kind to ourselves. But I do consider it failure. I think a lot of people do. It’s just tough to see that word in the headline of an article, and it feels like clickbait to say ‘crashes out, fails, disappoints the world, chokes’. They’re just harsh words, but I’ve finally come to terms with that being a little bit part of what we’re doing here.
“I’ve had a lot of moments where I didn’t fail as well, so it all comes out in the wash in the end.”