Mikaela Shiffrin talks grief, victory, resetting records in Alpine skiing
All season, Mikaela Shiffrin reached heights that exceeded expectations and imaginations. Shiffrin won 14 World Cup races to reach 88 victories, breaking Inegmar Stenmark’s career record. An encore of Shiffrin’s record-breaking 87th World Cup win airs on NBC on Sunday from 12-1 p.m. ET.
The double Olympic champion discussed what the season meant, how she’s still wrestling with grief and lessons learned on and off the slopes.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: All season long, there has been so much hype around you breaking the record and reaching 87. It’s interesting because it seems like that’s not what has mattered most to you all season. You compete because you genuinely love skiing. How were you able to keep your focus on your love for the sport rather than reaching 87 all season, when that’s the narrative around you?
Mikaela Shiffrin: Thank you. That’s a really thoughtful way to ask the question. It’s been a little bit challenging because everybody has been talking so much about the record. The last few weeks, especially leading up to the actual moment when I did reset it, I felt a lot of noise in my head that was sort of outside what I wanted to be focusing on.
But when I’m skiing, the feeling that I get is something I can focus on because I love it so much. Making a really strong, powerful fast turn is kind of hard to explain, but it’s like you step on the accelerator of a really nice car, and you’re just like, whoa. ... It’s just a cool feeling. If I really hyper focus on that, then everything else kind of falls away.
You’ve talked about how those winning moments in reality are actually a blur, just two minutes of your life. You’ve heard from Ingemar Stenmark, and then you’ve had Paula Moltzan, your brother and sister-in-law, your mom, and your boyfriend, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, by your side during some of these amazing milestones you’ve achieved this season. Can you sum up how that’s added to those moments?
Shiffrin: When these record-setting moments happen in my career, I feel like I’m not able to really process it. People have asked, has it sunk in yet? And it never has, even my first Olympic medal back in 2014 in Sochi, that never actually sunk in. What helps me to process things is the experience surrounding it and who is there.
For that 87th race, my brother and his wife came to Sweden from Colorado and surprised my mom and I there in Sweden. That moment was more meaningful than the race itself, but it also gave me something -- like almost a vessel to tie the race to -- in my own mind. That helps me process it, and it helps me put a little bit more emotion or more meaning to the actual race because if it was just 87 on its own, with nothing else going on, then it would never sink in, I guess.
You said people “equate winning with being OK and failure with being not OK” and how in reality that has nothing to do with how fast you came down the mountain. So how are you doing now? Are you OK?
Shiffrin: I am doing well, on most days. Really terrible on some days, and OK on all the rest. I think it’s pretty much how life is. I don’t know. Some days I feel overwhelmed. Some days I miss my dad so much I feel like it’s the day after he died and that none of this time [that has gone by] since then even ever happened. Sometimes I feel positive and psyched and happy.
But everybody around me, the whole team I work with, my coaches, my mom, who’s one of my coaches, Aleks, my boyfriend -- being able to work with a really incredible group of people is something that keeps me positive every day, and they’ve actually made it possible for me to have more really good days -- mostly really good days.
Thank you for sharing that. You said, “When you fail, it feels like the end. When you succeed, it feels like the beginning.” Do you feel like you’ve turned a page from those dark days, and if so, what is this the start of for you? If you were to give this next season of life that you’ve walked into a name, what would it be?
Shiffrin: I don’t know. ... I think we talk a lot about difficult times or darker moments in life, and we want to move past it. We want to get over it and just have it in the rearview and think now we’re good, that’s behind me. But I think there’s plenty of dark days that are ahead of me still. There’s a lot that can happen in life that derails you right when you’re feeling good. I feel like right when I’m having a great time, something bad really happens. It’s kind of a constant feeling of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.
I don’t feel very fearful of it. I just know that at some point, something’s going to go wrong. It might be next season. I mean, this season was incredible, but you don’t really sustain that kind of consistent level of success. Most people don’t even sustain it through a single season, let alone for multiple seasons.
I don’t see it as if now that I have this great season, I know all the answers, and I’m going to be good for the rest of my career. I expect that next season, a lot of the women I was competing against are going to come back with faster skiing, and it’s going to be an even harder fight than it has been. I might not win as many races, I might not win any races. I am going to work to try to fight for wins and podiums, but we just don’t know how it’s going to go. It’ll be a season of unknowns.
For the past six months, I felt like I’ve been riding a wave, and at some point, the wave is done -- you’re done. Like, that’s it, you’ve ridden the wave, and now it’s over and you have to paddle back out and try to catch a new wave. I guess next season, or whenever it is, I’ll be looking out for the next swell, basically.
There’s a powerful quote that says, “You’ve changed, so even if you could go back, you wouldn’t belong.” Does that resonate with you? When you think back to those hard seasons -- the trauma of dealing with your dad’s passing, the sleepless nights that came after, the Beijing Olympics — all of those hard experiences shaped you into the Mikaela Shiffrin that’s sitting in front of me. How would this Mikaela handle those experiences?
Shiffrin: I think I would probably handle them the same. I learned so much from everything that’s been happening the last several years. But I don’t necessarily have a better capacity to deal with the pain of losing my dad, or the disappointment of the Olympics and facing sort of the backlash through media or all of the challenges.
There’s this idea that when we we learn and grow through life that would help us handle things better or be less uncomfortable when things go wrong. I don’t think I would be less uncomfortable. I would probably still react the same way and learn the same lessons.
I’ve learned to handle difficult situations better. I have more perspective on what’s really, really important to me in life. Disappointment, failure and challenging experiences, they don’t change. They just are, and they happen and I don’t know that you just kind of move through it, I guess. Hopefully you handle it with grace, but it doesn’t always go that way, either.
Do you think this was this a season that made every bump in the road that you’ve experienced on your ski journey (obviously, with the exception of your dad’s passing) worth it? If not, what would make it worth it?
Shiffrin: I do. One thing I tell my teammates, especially if they have a tough race, is when you get your first podium, or when you have your first top 10 or top five, or have a good race again, this moment is going to matter to you a lot less. It’s really hard right now, but you will have another best result. You’re going to keep working, and you’re going to have really great races again, and then you’re going to look back on this moment and feel like this was just laying the groundwork for the more successful periods. It’s just peaks and valleys, basically, but the peaks make the valleys worth it.
Like you said, there’s definitely some exceptions there, but if we just focus on my career in the sport, you will not win every single race. When you do win, it does make everything else worth it, or when you have those races that feel truly spectacular, it does make it worth it. I guess that’s the only reason I’m still doing it is because it is worth it. When I finally feel like it’s not worth it, then I’ll probably retire.
You’ve talked about struggling with intensity and duration of focus over the last two seasons due to grief and trauma, which in turn impacted your memory and ability to remember the course. What specific work have you done to help regain that focus?
Shiffrin: Some of it is time. There’s basically no substitute for time and how that can heal certain things. I don’t heal from losing my dad, but parts of the chemical changes that happened in your brain from that trauma, from the grief, you do start to heal some of those bits and pieces. It’s kind of like there’s a scar, but the scar becomes less sensitive a little bit. So with my memory and those things, a lot of it is just addressing that.
For the first season leading up to the Olympics, I talked with a sports psychologist, and it was really helpful, but I feel like it was sort of missing the point of what I really needed, which was more like an overall psychologist and maybe more specifically grief counseling. Basically trying to uncover what happens in my brain when I lost my dad and the trauma of all that -- everything that goes along with it.
Sometimes I feel like I haven’t done anything to improve, but then on other days, so much of it is just acknowledging what I feel, why I feel that way, what the challenges have been. Sometimes it’s going easy on myself and sometimes it’s holding myself accountable.
Just to even be able to admit that there’s an effect, it took talking with somebody who was able to tell me [what I’ve been experiencing] is a legitimate thing that happens when you experience grief. It’s certainly not a linear path, but there is an actual impact on your brain and your memory. After hearing that for the first time, it made a lot of sense because I’ve been feeling that -- so just making that connection was helpful. It was realizing that you don’t have to go through life saying that there’s no problem, and I’m fine. You don’t have to be fine all the time.
Grief comes with so many different emotions. It comes in waves. Which emotions have been the strongest for you, and how have you let it out?
Shiffrin: I think my strongest, strongest emotion has been anger. I’m not naturally a very angry person, but that’s been what I’ve experienced the most. I don’t like feeling angry or sad. I prefer to be happy and laughing and just around the people that I love, but sometimes I get kind of in a little bit of a spiral of feeling angry. It’s sort of satisfying.
I can go down the rabbit hole a little bit with that, and that’s been something I’ve been working on trying to understand and just admit to that, when I started to feel angry, and overwhelmingly sad, that the rest of the things in life that I care about seem to go out the window, and that’s when I start to lose a lot of motivation. Especially at races, I feel like I don’t want to be here, and I really don’t care about this race. When it happens when I’m around family, I am less loving and empathetic towards them as well.
It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to set that aside and say no, I have my family here. They are still here, and I do love them. It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to say I do care about this race, and it’s OK to care about this race, even though sometimes it feels silly in the grand scheme of things. It’s OK to have things that I care about in life and to want to work towards that. I go through this whole process in my mind, step by step, to address it so that I get out of this cycle of anger because I don’t feel good when I’m angry. But somehow it’s satisfying and I can kind of let it take over a little bit.
Thank you for sharing that. Switching gears, I know you’re already excited to get back to work. What are you looking forward to most about working with your new coach Karin Harjo?
Shiffrin: I am really excited about her passion, thoughtfulness, kindness and attention to detail in the program. One of the first things she said to me was that I’m never going to be questioning where her commitment is. Right up front, she’s there, and if anything ever changes, she’ll be the first one to be upfront and honest with me. So I never have to question, “Are you good to still be doing this?” Because the program that I do comparative to any other athlete on the World Cup, it’s more time. It’s more stress, it’s more physical work, and also mental work.
It’s a tall order, and my coaches really have to be fully committed and know what they’re signing up for. [Harjo] was like, I know what I’m signing up for, and I am fully committed, and if that ever changes, I will let you know. I won’t let it get past the point where we can actually do this work together. So I’m so excited because I can feel the energy she’s going to bring to it, and I think I can feed off that.
You haven’t been home since September. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you walk into your house?
Shiffrin: Hmm. I’m probably going to make some popcorn.
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