This article was originally published in October before the 2020-21 Alpine Skiing season
For the first time since 2016 Mikaela Shiffrin comes into a new season of skiing without the Overall World Cup title to her name as defending champion.
In fact she doesn’t have a single discipline title to defend.
While 2019-20 was a fractured season for everyone, for Shiffrin it was something else entirely. At times her form seemed imperious, completely unchallenged, at others it seemed a little... off. Of course, in the same way Aaron Rodgers can claim that a down year for him is still a career year for most NFL quarterbacks, Shiffrin could claim that being a little off her form is still better than 90% of the skiers on the circuit.
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Still, while it wasn’t always easy for Shiffrin on the slopes, off them it was absolutely devastating as she lost her grandmother in November and then her father, Jeff, in February. Shiffrin immediately left the circuit after the latter loss hit her family and eventually planned to return for the final race of the season in Are before that was cancelled by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, Italy’s Federica Brignone was crowned the World Cup champion.
Shiffrin has since had limited training time for the new season as America struggles to cope with the pandemic, and having arrived in Europe ahead of the season-opener in Soelden, Shiffrin is now heading back to the States after suffering a back injury.
In a conference call with selected media before it was confirmed she would miss Soelden, Shiffrin was in a reflective mood, which is unsurprising for a very socially aware and family orientated 25-year-old who lost her father and watched her country rip itself to pieces in 2020.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Shiffrin admitted that she has no idea what her form is like and that she has even considered her future in the sport.
“It's really difficult to know and the last days since we've been in Europe have been challenging with the weather so we had some difficult training right off the bat,” Shiffrin says. “And I haven't been on snow recently so it's taking a little bit of time to get into the right rhythm again and I trained with Austrian girls a couple days ago with a pretty big group and one day I was pretty far behind and one day, I was okay.”
Mikaela Shiffrin of United States of America during the FIS Ski World Cup - Women's Alpine Slalom - first run - on January 14, 2020 in Flachau, Austria
Image credit: Getty Images
Hearing that Shiffrin was weighing up walking away from the sport, just a year after Marcel Hirscher hung up his skis at the age of 30, would have sent alarm bells ringing for skiing fans but rest assured Shiffrin still “loves” the sport. She just wants to be up front and realistic about her future.
“I used to worry about winning ski races and maybe I will again but then my nana died and then I still worried about winning scary races and then my dad died and I just gave up ski racing all together,” Shiffrin says of her tumultuous few months.
And I thought that maybe I wouldn't come back at all.
“Yeah that’s going to be the headline of the newspaper tomorrow, ‘Mikaela’s thinking that’, oh that's gonna be good,” Shiffrin adds whilst laughing.
“No not like consciously but I just thought, should I come back, is it worth it? Because, I mean, we've talked about this as an American coming over to Europe, most of the season is in Europe and we're away from home for around six months during the season and then another two months during the summer period in total so we’re not at home very often and when I think about the time that I spent with my dad, you know I wish that I had had more time with him but I don't know how that could be possible with the schedule we have to do.
“You know this, that I love the sport and I have so much passion and I want to do it and that here I am I'm doing it but yeah, it also takes me away from the people that I love and at some point that that's gonna be too much and you know now my brother’s back home, I won't see him for a really long time but my mom is travelling with me and I if she was not able to come I would not be here 100%,
US' Mikaela Shiffrin skies freestyle after beeing disqualified in the women's Alpine Combined Super G event during the FIS ski Alpine World Cup in Zauchensee Altenmarkt, Austria on January 12, 2020.
Image credit: Getty Images
“So it's definitely changed my perspective as well on just trying to be around people that I love as much as possible even though sometimes that's not possible and it's just trying to appreciate that. I don't think my dad would want me to stop [so I’m racing] for him but it's also hard to know that because he can't be here to tell me so there's one of the things that I struggle with and you know, how long will it be worth it?
“The travel, being away from home, all of those things and in a way it was a consideration but I wasn't thinking, ‘I'm gonna quit now’ it was just like what does this mean to me?”
Shiffrin was pushed on this line of thinking and she admitted that “it's not the first time” she has thought this.
“I think since the beginning, I always missed being home,” she says. “And especially, you know, during times like over Christmas.
I haven't been at home for Christmas for I think 13 or 15 years but those are things I start to get used to.
“I've questioned it but yeah, I think it's probably natural to question that and maybe it just makes it stronger when I keep coming back and deciding, yeah right now I think it's worth it because I really want to do this.
“I really love it, but it is always a bit of a question, you know it at what point is that enough?”
This isn’t necessarily a new line of thinking of Shiffrin, like Hirscher she has always been clear that records don’t motivate her. This is what she told Eurosport exclusively last year.
“I think if I was only motivated by success or results then I probably would have stopped a while ago.” Shiffrin said.
“I find a little bit of motivation in those records but really I just feel like I have more that I can accomplish in skiing. Not results wise but with my actual skiing.
Shiffrin: If I was only motivated by results, I'd have stopped a while ago
“What motivates me is the piece of the sport that is removed from the records or the results or the racing.”
Shiffrin said that during the pandemic she kept herself pretty isolated with her family, as they tried to adjust to live without Jeff and pick up the aspects of their life that he looked after.
Shiffrin has been vocal recently on social media about her father’s death, trying to honour his legacy and talk about what she has been going through. Yet she openly admits that she finds it far easier to talk to the public than her family or even herself.
“I actually find it easier to talk about that [Jeff’s death] publicly more than privately.
“I think there's a certain amount I'm able to talk about which seems in a way, it's almost obvious, and so people would expect that I might feel this way and so it it's almost easier to say it then.
“But I feel like when I have a conversation with somebody and they ask me or my mum or my brother, 'how are you doing?' it's always now, it's not like small talk like, ‘oh how's it going?’ it's like, ‘oh how are you doing really’? and we can feel that in the tone and it's also maybe a little bit from our side like assuming that's what people are thinking even if they're not. But then just having a conversation with someone, really basic conversations, is like very awkward so for me, the way I handle it so far is just to say what I can say about it and you know if somebody says like, 'I'm so sorry for you' it's hard to know what to say but I still appreciate that.”
This is the longest she’s been without skiing and for so many reasons it’s going to be emotional when she races once more. However fans and Shiffrin are going to have to wait a little longer. There will be more unknowns than ever about the American’s form, as she tends to train privately for a lot of the summer, and no-one, not even Shiffrin, will know where she’s at until she stands at the starting gate. Whenever that happens, it will be a special moment.