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Mikaela Shiffrin readies for re-emergence in familiar place during unfamiliar time

After coping with her father's death, overcoming adversity and training amid the pandemic, Mikaela Shiffrin is ready to emerge from darkness and make a triumphant return to skiing.

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.’’