In 2014, Olympic Mikaela Shiffrin burst onto the world stage as one of the leading female ski racers of her generation when she became the youngest person in history to win a gold medal in the slalom event in Sochi. In the years since then, she has also played a quiet role in expanding the ongoing conversation about mental health in sports by speaking openly about her own shyness and experience working with a sports psychologist.
Still, her story didn’t quite prepare her for what happened when she unexpectedly lost her father in early 2020. Her journey through grief seemed to come to a head at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, when some stumbles unusual took her to public. tears on the mountainside at the Yanqing National Alpine Ski Center. Favored as one of the most decorated athletes at the Games, she ultimately went home without a medal. Although she recovered and won her fourth overall World Cup title in Courchevel, France, just a month later, what happened in February was a shock.
In the debut essay for a new Players’ Tribune series called Signature, the 27-year-old explores the path from her father’s death to her redeeming World Cup title, focusing on how to compete at a high level and going through tragedy have taught her about uncertainty. She also admits that she can’t explain exactly what went wrong in Beijing. “I could give you the media answer I always give,” she writes. “I could put on a brave face and tell you something generic. But the truth is… I don’t know.
This week, Shiffrin took time before starting a new strength program in Vail, Colorado to tell you vanity fair about the trial and his experience in Beijing. In a phone interview, Shiffrin explained why she felt it was time to share some of her hard-earned psychological and philosophical insights and her hopes for the future.
Vanity Fair: I thought it was profound for you to say that you still aren’t really sure what happened in Beijing and you still don’t feel like your success in Courchevel has fixed everything. How did you make peace with that?
Mikaela Shiffrin: I am not at peace with that. The whole “I don’t know” thing in life is that it’s not a peaceful thing to feel. It’s incredibly uncomfortable, and a lot of what I do as an athlete is uncertain. I think, “This is going to be the plan for my summer training and my time in the gym.” When the season starts, you just cross your fingers, hoping it worked, hoping you’re strong enough but not overtrained, hoping you’ve skied enough to get the right rep and all that stuff. There’s a lot of uncharted territory that feels more like hope than anything else. I don’t really know anyone who really knows.
I used to think that certain people had the answers, so if you looked it up online or on YouTube or something. Someone is going to give you the answers as if you were studying calculus and the answer existed. Someone will help you learn it. I’ve realized so many things over the years that people I thought I knew probably didn’t either. They only have experience, and they have advice and suggestions, but nobody knows. Sure, it’s just awkward and I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with it. But at least I know it exists now.
That sounds a lot like the lessons he describes learning due to the loss of his father. How did you get the idea to write something about all this?
What stuck with me was how much the Tribune wanted to simply give me a platform to share the part of my story that is a little more personal than athletic success and winning versus losing. The Olympic side of things, but it all comes together. For me, one of the most useful things is to find a way to look into the future, not even outdo it. It’s simply finding reasons to look forward to tomorrow or next week or even a couple of years from now. Reasons to look forward to life.
A lot of what we see with athletes and in sports gives us the idea that when you win, you’re good and you’re okay, and then when you lose, you’re not okay. It’s just not that simple, whether it’s because you’re dealing with grief or any form of struggle or just life in general. If you think about the last week, most people have had some very difficult times and probably some very good ones as well. So I wanted to say that daily life includes struggle and triumph, and is not something linear. Grief is not something linear and just talk about it. So that people can see some of the tragedy that I have experienced and my family has experienced, but I could still come back and win the overall world title.