Mikaela Shiffrin is exhausted. Like the rest of us, 2020 has kicked her butt. As she settles in front of her computer for a press conference—held virtually over Zoom, because, you know, 2020—to answer questions about how she’s feeling on the eve of her return to World Cup racing, she reveals that her overriding emotion is “tired.”
On Nov. 21, when Shiffrin steps up to the start gate of the opening women’s World Cup slalom race in Levi, Finland, it will have been 300 days since her last World Cup start. Three hundred days since she threw herself down Bansko’s super-G in Bulgaria to claim only her fourth World Cup victory in the discipline; 297 days since she suddenly left the 2020 World Cup Tour and rushed home to Colorado to be with her father, Jeff Shiffrin, who died unexpectedly on Feb. 2; and 270 days since the World Cup came to an abrupt end due to the pandemic and the World Cup Overall Title went to Italian Federica Brignone, who climbed to the top of the leader board in Shiffrin’s absence.
Pandemic aside, this year has been an emotional rollercoaster for Shiffrin. Add the pandemic to the mix, and it’s no wonder the U.S. racing star is feeling drained.
“I’m emotionally tired,” she concedes. “There are moments when I feel angry, but I don’t think there’s room for anger right now—we’re in a pandemic. I didn’t choose that, given the choice, none of us would have chosen to experience this. But you don’t get to choose those things. I’m incredibly angry, but not about the way last season ended. I’m angry that my dad died. I’m angry at how alone I feel most days.”
But in true Shiffrin fashion, she doesn’t allow herself to dwell on the negative. With her first World Cup race just days away, she forces herself to focus on the positives. And somehow, despite everything she’s had to cope with over the last year, she manages to find silver linings.
“The name of the game this year during this pandemic is gratitude,” she says. “I’m incredibly grateful that I have my mom near me so often. My brother’s around. There are things to be grateful for. And I hope for the rest of my life, gratitude remains the name of the game, because what’s the point otherwise?”
So on Saturday, Shiffrin will click into her skis, shuffle into the Levi start house, and be grateful to be back doing what she loves. Does she hope to win? Of course. Is that her goal? No.
“My goal is still to just make some good turns. Ideally, make every turn a good turn, and hopefully it’s fast. I’m trying to keep my expectations for this race low. But I want to keep my standard for how I’m skiing high. I want to ski well, which includes skiing fast, because, if nothing else, it feels good to ski well.”
If there’s anything you should know about Shiffrin by this point, it’s that winning is never the end all, be all of racing for her. When Shiffrin steps into a start gate, her sole mission is to ski her very best. The pandemic, her father’s death, her long absence from racing, and people’s expectations—nothing has changed that.
Will that be enough considering the stacked field of competitors—Brignone, Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, Sweden’s Anna Swenn-Larrson, Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener—Shiffrin will face in the opening slalom in Levi? Hard to say, considering the lack of training and preparation Shiffrin and all World Cup competitors have had going into the 2021 World Cup Tour.
“I haven’t raced for 300 days, and I haven’t gotten a whole lot of training in this prep period or over the summer. I haven’t gotten to compare my skiing with any of the other athletes,” Shiffrin says.
Picking a favorite to win any given race is tricky and subjective under normal circumstances. This year, explains Shiffrin, it’s even harder to predict who will perform well, and perhaps even a little pointless given all the unknowns surrounding this World Cup season.
“No matter who is labeled the favorite for a competition, there’s always somebody else out there who is going to do a good job and sometimes it’s not who you expect,” she says.
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Still, fans will undoubtedly expect Shiffrin to ski to the top of the podium in Levi—something she’s accomplished in the last two consecutive years and four times over the course of her career. And many would consider a win in Levi a victorious comeback for Shiffrin, one that would set the record straight about who could have or should have won the World Cup Overall and Slalom Titles last season. But again, Shiffrin doesn’t see it that way.
“This happened [in 2016], when I got injured and Frida [Hansdotter] won the Slalom Globe. A lot of people were saying that the globe was stolen from me. And I feel the same way now that I did then: Frida skied well that season, and Federica [Brignone] skied well last season—in more than just one event. Petra [Vlhova] was skiing really strong in slalom. All of those girls are strong skiers and they were winning races—even when I was skiing.”
Sure, when Shiffrin left the Tour in February to mourn the loss of her father, there was still a lot of World Cup season left, and who knows what may have happened if she had been present for the remaining races, Shiffrin says.
“It wasn’t a normal season, but the season ended when it ended and those girls took the lead. That just has to be OK. It happens all the time—sometimes weather is a factor in the final race of the season. For me, there was a lot more heartbreak throughout the year than just losing the Globe because I wasn’t competing. Each one of the girls who won the discipline titles, they all deserved it.”
For Shiffrin, her return to the World Cup on Saturday isn’t a chance to pick up where she left off, or a chance to set records straight. It’s a chance to start with a clean slate.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to loosen the reins. I don’t want the other athletes to think, ‘poor Mikaela, let’s slow down for her.’ I wouldn't do that for them. This is ski racing. It’s either going to go amazing, or it’s not, and we’ll live to fight another day.”
If things do go well and she claims the traditional Levi World Cup victory prize, a reindeer, to add to her herd of four? She'll name it Copper, after Copper Mountain in Colo., in tribute to the place and people who worked tirelessly to ensure the U.S. Ski Team athletes got to train on snow over the last three weeks amid the pandemic and rising coronavirus cases.
Get caught up: American Paula Moltzan Leads U.S. Team in Sölden, Austria
Tune into SKImag.com’s coverage of the women's World Cup races in Levi on our Competitions channel.