By Bill Pennington, The New York Times
Mikaela Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic Alpine skiing champion, stopped competing 13 months ago, an absence tied to the accidental death of her father and later extended by the coronavirus pandemic and a back injury suffered in training.
Shiffrin returned to the start gate in December and in the next four months won three World Cup races and four medals in the world championships, the latter setting American records for most career medals (11) and victories (six) at the event.
It was a successful winter by any measure, except perhaps Shiffrin’s recent past: In the 2018-19 season, she finished with an astonishing 17 World Cup victories. So it was not a surprise to Shiffrin that her statistical decline this season was much noted in the skiing community, but she did not like all that she heard.
“One of the things that bugged me was so many people saying, ‘Oh, she’s lost it,’” Shiffrin said in a telephone interview from Europe last week. “You know, I’m still here, I’m still doing it.”
“It’s true it wasn’t as good a year as I’ve had in the past,” she said, adding that many people around the world, not just ski racers, could say the same thing about the previous 12 months. “But when I look back at this season, I’ll be proud. I didn’t even know if there was going to be a World Cup or if I was emotionally ready for it. Then I was injured as the racing was starting, and in bed and not training. I felt like I was playing catch-up.”
Ultimately, her 300-day layoff and atypical results have provided Shiffrin with something significant as the 2022 Beijing Olympics approach: incentive.
“I’m motivated from what was lacking this year,” Shiffrin, 26, said. “There’s some missing pieces. That’s one of my biggest goals — to get those back.”
Shiffrin said the best example of her renewed drive was her presence last week on the slopes of the Kuhtai Ski Resort in Austria, where she tested dozens of new skis not far from the headquarters of her equipment sponsor, Atomic. In previous years, after a demanding 21-race World Cup schedule in nine countries, she might have dashed home.
“But this year, I want to stay here because I’m excited to do the work,” said Shiffrin, whose 69 World Cup victories rank third behind Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 and Lindsey Vonn’s 82. “And that’s a good place to be. I’m looking forward to all the offseason training I can get.”
Although the Beijing Olympics are 11 months away, they are already on her mind. Shiffrin is the rare athlete with the versatility to compete in each of the five Alpine events, so she must soon decide whether to arrange the extensive spring and summer training needed to prepare for each race.
Then there is the uncertainty of the pandemic’s effect on the availability of on-snow training. Most years, Shiffrin would travel to practice in South America or New Zealand — or both — as well as in California and Colorado. Last summer, she was confined to the western United States.
Shiffrin has not decided which races to enter at the Winter Games. She did not, for example, compete in a downhill race this past season, although her back injury in early October and limited training opportunities probably contributed to that decision.
“I’m trying to decide what I want to ski in the Olympics and where I have the potential to be a medal contender,” Shiffrin said. “You have to be prepared before the next World Cup season starts because there’s a million things that can get in the way leading up to the Olympics.”
The Beijing Games will be Shiffrin’s third Olympics, but unlike in the period before the 2014 Sochi Games and the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, she has not skied on the mountain racecourses outside Beijing that will be used for the Alpine competitions. It is customary for test events to be staged at an Olympic venue a year or more in advance, but the ski areas outside Beijing get little natural snow — and the pandemic led to the suspension of travel and planning. Few top racers have skied at, or even visited, the Beijing sites.
“Nobody’s seen it,” Shiffrin said, “and that’s definitely going to add a layer of chaos when we arrive for the first time at the games. Like, where do we go? What’s happening here?”
Shiffrin is encouraged that the focus on American Olympic ski racing prospects will be more diffuse than it was in 2018, when attention was reserved almost exclusively for her and the now-retired Vonn. Several teammates had breakout performances this winter, including Paula Moltzan, 26, who placed in the top 10 of the last three World Cup slalom races of the season. Moltzan’s teammate, Nina O’Brien, 23, finished 17th in the seasonlong giant slalom standings.
In December, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, the son of the 1972 Olympic Alpine gold medalist Barbara Cochran, became the first American man to win a World Cup super-G in 15 years.
“The team has shown a level of depth and consistency,” Shiffrin said, “that I haven’t experienced in my career.”
Next week, Shiffrin expects to head back to her home in Colorado, changed by the past 13 months. On Feb. 2, 2020, her father, Jeff Shiffrin, an anesthesiologist in Denver, died at 65 from what a coroner ruled a home accident, listing the cause of death as a head injury.
“My life was flipped upside down and inside out,” Shiffrin said. “And never mind me, there was a pandemic. It changes your perspective.”
Noting that she has been on the World Cup circuit for 11 seasons, Shiffrin added, “A sort of staleness could have set in, but I feel lucky to do this and to have people around me who have given so much of themselves to help me be good at it.
“And I have a sense of wanting to figure out what I want to do better. Because I want to do better.”