May 31 (Reuters) - This year has been difficult for athletes but few have had a harder time than Olympic champion ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin.

In early February, her father Jeff passed away unexpectedly at the age of 65 following an accident at his home.

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On hearing the news, the twice gold medallist flew back to Colorado from Europe to be at his hospital bedside with her mother Eileen and brother Taylor when he passed.

She found the strength to return to the World Cup ski circuit in Sweden in March only for the season to be called off due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, the overall World Cup title, which she had held for three years, went to Italy's Federica Brignone and her slalom title, which she had won six times in the past seven years, went to rival Petra Vlhova of Slovakia.

"It's one of those things that's almost impossible to process," the 25-year-old told Reuters in an interview from her home in Edwards, Colorado.

"The human brain can only take so much. It's built for survival and when something happens that you just can't process, it says, 'Alright, we're moving on'."

Her father, an anesthesiologist and ski racer in college, was more than just her biggest supporter, he was also the one keeping her professional life running smoothly.

"He was the CEO of Mikaela Shiffrin as a ski racer," she said, adding that he handled her finances and worked with her agent on a daily basis.

His death caused Mikaela's world to stop just as the pandemic forced the sports world into deep freeze, giving her and her family the opportunity to heal together.

She is staying fit thanks to her home gym and trying to keep her spirits up by playing guitar, singing and dancing.

"We need positivity right now. I need positivity right now," she said.

"My dad always used to say that when you smile, the act of smiling releases chemicals in your brain that make you happier.

"Sometimes when you're down, you have to 'fake it 'til you make it'."

GIVING BACK

Confronted with the tragedy, Shiffrin has channeled her energy into charitable causes.

This month she performed a song as part of "Goggles for Docs," which provides ski goggles to health care workers.

She also recently joined the popular All-In Challenge charity auction.

The winning bidder will receive a raft of prizes including professional ski equipment plus VIP tickets and a 'meet and greet' with Shiffrin at the Women's World Cup in Killington, Vermont, where she claimed four of her 66 World Cup race wins.

Shiffrin, who is by nature a private person, has also taken on a leadership role alongside tennis player Madison Keys with Kindness Wins, a foundation that advocates for the better treatment of others and stamping out of bullying.

"I really identify with the kids out there who have an introverted personality in an extroverted world and are not sure how to navigate that," she said.

Shiffrin said giving back has helped her keep grounded and grateful.

"You start to hear stories that are really upsetting but also really inspirational," she added.

"Not only are you doing a good thing, which feels good, but it also helps you keep the perspective to say, 'Hey, it could be worse'." (Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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