Mikaela Shiffrin can’t explain her Beijing Olympic performance. She’s just doing the next right thing

Mikaela Shiffrin can’t explain her Beijing Olympic performance. She’s just doing the next right thing

MIKAELA SHIFFRIN’S BUTT was getting cold. She’d been sitting on the icy snowpack near the top of the slalom course at Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Center for nearly 20 minutes, but she wasn’t ready to move. For the second time in three days, Shiffrin had failed to finish a race at the Beijing Olympics, and this time, the three-time Olympic medalist skied out 5 seconds into the first run of her best event.

Shiffrin is so consistently good at the slalom that, two weeks before arriving in Beijing, she got her 47th World Cup slalom win, breaking Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s 32-year record for the most World Cup wins in a single discipline. She is a four-time world champion in the event and already owns an Olympic slalom gold from Sochi. Coming into Beijing, the narrative was that she should win three individual gold medals — something no American skier had accomplished at a single Olympics — and could win five.

This turn of events was a shock, to her as much as to everyone watching. The aftermath was reminiscent of the Tokyo Olympics, when gymnast Simone Biles lost where she was in the air during a vault she had performed thousands of times, then left the arena to decide what to do next.

Shiffrin needed a moment to sit in the snow with her thoughts before she answered to the world. “I was trying to figure out how I could disappear from the mountain and melt under the fence,” Shiffrin says in late April, seated on an oversized white couch in the home she shares with her mom, Eileen, in Edwards, Colorado. Just beyond the room’s exterior glass doors, a family of deer grazes on a shady hillside. Shiffrin, 27, tucks her stocking feet underneath her and tries to remember how she felt that February day when she lifted her head from her knees and realized the world was watching her attempt to disappear.

“I was trying to comprehend a situation that’s not something you can wrap your head around,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do right now.'”

What she was sure she didn’t want to do was face the cameras and coaches and questions that awaited her in the finish.

How had the compounding stressors of these Games — the COVID protocols, the isolation, the concern over human rights violations committed by the host country — affected her mindset? How about the coaching switch she had made weeks before, or the training and World Cup races she had missed over the holidays because she was in quarantine with COVID-19? Or the pain in her heart, which ached because she missed her dad more than she could put into words and the second anniversary of his death fell two days before the opening ceremony? Or had the pressure to perform as the greatest in history, and her own desire to live up to that reputation, become too heavy a load to carry at 80 mph?

Shiffrin didn’t know the answers to those questions. But sitting there on the snow, she says, a thought, a melody, slipped into her mind. “There’s a scene in ‘Frozen II’ where Anna sings, ‘Just do the next right thing,'” Shiffrin says, and sings the lyrics. “That was the thought. Not, ‘What is the next day going to bring?’ Or ‘What is the next race going to bring?’ Just, ‘What’s the next step I have to take?'”

Doing the next right thing had taken Shiffrin from what she thought was her lowest point, at the previous Olympics in Pyeongchang, through the loss of her father, the isolation of lockdown and a back injury. Over and over again, Shiffrin found the strength to pick herself up, put one foot in front of the other and move forward. As she did so, she realized her identity and well-being had little to do with how fast she skied downhill. She was more than a ski racer, and she was no longer afraid to let people see.

ON FEB. 16, 2018, Shiffrin was in an IOC vehicle with her physio and publicist headed back to her hotel from the Alpine venue in Pyeongchang. By all accounts, she was having a great Olympics. But she didn’t feel like a success. After winning gold in the giant slalom the day before, she finished just off the podium in slalom, 8 one-hundredths of a second behind the bronze medalist. When she reached the finish area, all she could think about was getting out of there.

“We are in the car, and I remember she says, ‘I want to crawl into a black hole and never come out,'” says Megan Harrod, Shiffrin’s publicist since 2014. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, she is so hard on herself.'”

Shiffrin opened Twitter and Instagram to find messages of support, but she focused on those that labeled her a disappointment. “That felt awful,” Shiffrin says, “like the worst it could get.”

Back at the hotel, in what felt like her greatest moment of doubt and disappointment, she turned to the person who had always been there to offer perspective, to wrap wisdom in a lighthearted comment.

Her dad, Jeff, told her, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”

The next day, Shiffrin did what seemed like the next right thing. She posted a photo of herself, collapsed in the finish area after the slalom, and was unusually candid, yet upbeat, about her fourth-place finish. “It’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics,” she wrote. “It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than gold, silver or bronze.”

The responses to her post were uniformly positive and supportive. Six days later, she took silver in the combined and, over the next two years, achieved an unprecedented streak of success. She leaned into the silly, bubbly picture of perfection she believed the world expected from her.

“I stuck to skiing, to the happy-go-lucky, smiley, silly personality,” Shiffrin says. “I thought, that’s why people come to my social media or decided they like following me, as a way to escape reality.”

As she became more famous, more followed online, she split herself into two. She curated her social media into a fun, filtered escape for her followers and shared the messy, curious, work-in-progress human with only the few people she allowed close enough to see her flaws.

“For the first eight years of her career, people called Mikaela ‘The Robot,’ or ‘The Machine,’ says Shiffrin’s longtime best friend, Brayton “Bug” Pech. “She was selective in what she let out to the world. The way she was going with PR is, ‘I have to be perfect and can’t say what I think or feel.’ She hadn’t cemented who she was in her sport, so she was aware of, ‘if I say something, even if I believe in it, it might reflect poorly on me.'”

Shiffrin and Pech became roommates in eighth grade at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, as Shiffrin was figuring out who she was and what she believed in while becoming one of the most followed, famous ski racers in the world. The girls watched Harry Potter, listened to music, and talked about big ideas like pressure, privilege and image.

“Mikaela’s always been extremely empathetic,” Pech says. “If she was aware of injustice in any way, she wanted to dig her claws into understanding more about it. She likes to learn, do the work and feel everything. But she compartmentalizes to one of the most extreme degrees I’ve ever seen. That can be extremely helpful or extremely harmful.”

By early 2020, Shiffrin was on top of the world. She had achieved the greatest season in ski racing history, won her third overall World Cup title, and moved into a new home with her mom and dad. Then, in early February, her world fractured.

SHIFFRIN HAD JUST returned to her hotel in Trentino, Italy, when her older brother, Taylor, called from Colorado and asked to talk to Mom. “Dad had an accident,” he said. Jeff had fallen at home and suffered a head injury.

The next morning, Shiffrin and her mom boarded a 10-hour flight to Denver and arrived at the hospital in time to be by her father’s side when he took his final breath on Feb. 2, 2020, at age 65.

Without her dad, Shiffrin felt untethered. “We were lost and angry, trying to pick up the pieces so we could keep life going,” Shiffrin says. “There wasn’t even time to grieve.” Her superhuman ability to focus amid chaos slipped away. She didn’t want to put on skis without her dad there to document every turn in photos and videos, narrate her memories, schedule her flights and engulf her in bear hugs. “It’s this concept that my greatest years of my life are behind me,” she says.

“Going back to ski again was the hardest thing. The first time I put on skis and then the first time I got back in a training course, that was hard. From there, it was figuring out if I wanted to race again. And I couldn’t make that decision without trying. I thought, I have to try and hopefully the decision will make itself.”

Four weeks after Jeff’s death, in March 2020, Shiffrin did the next right thing. She and her mom flew to Are, Sweden, for a parallel slalom race at the site of her first World Cup win. But less than 24 hours before the start of the race, the world shut down because of the coronavirus.

Back home in Colorado, Shiffrin stopped reaching out to those closest to her, believing she was doing them a favor by not burdening them with her pain.

“After a few weeks, everybody starts to move on with life and you’re stuck with your world turned upside down, realizing everybody else doesn’t want to hear about it anymore,” Shiffrin says. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about death and anger and sadness, and they prefer to just feel like you’re OK. So, you pretend you are doing OK to spare people the discomfort of knowing you are not.

“Lockdown felt like a grace period. My mom and brother and I were together, and it allowed us to not have to make the excuse, ‘I don’t want to come to dinner tonight because I’m dealing with the loss of my father.’ It allowed us some time. Maybe that was the silver lining for me and my family.”

ON JUNE 10, 2020, Shiffrin stared at her phone. She’d been thinking about the post she was about to share for a couple of weeks. In the wake of national protests against systemic racism triggered by George Floyd’s murder, she’d been reading and learning, investigating her own privilege as a white woman, the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, and an elite athlete in a sport that has been historically unavailable to athletes of color. For the first time, after years of holding back her opinions and carefully curating her online image, her need to say what was on her mind outweighed her fear of not saying it perfectly or the negative reaction it might elicit.

“Being silent is choosing the side of the oppressor, because it allows the oppression to continue,” Shiffrin wrote in a nearly 1,000-word post. “I might not have said that three weeks ago … honestly I might have pointed out that ‘all lives matter’ if someone had asked me, just because I thought it would be the kindest and most inclusive thing to say and I probably would have walked away from that conversation feeling so proud because I thought that I answered a question non-confrontationally and with dignity and I am ASHAMED of that now.”

She thought she was prepared for the response. She had received hateful comments before, like when she didn’t win the slalom in South Korea. But the responses to her post that afternoon from people who wanted her to “shut up and ski” or opposed her support of Black Lives Matter, shocked her into letting go of her fear of not being liked or accepted, of losing followers. “A lot of people unfollowed me and commented that they were disappointed,” she says. “How could you be disappointed in somebody caring about other people? I was so angry, and what was even more infuriating was that, in order to cool off, all I had to do was turn off my phone and walk away. Some people can’t just put their phones down because they live these injustices on a daily basis.

“I can imagine there are people who think, ‘Oh great, another white girl getting her ESPN interview talking about how bad she feels about what I have to actually deal with on a daily basis and she knows nothing about,'” Shiffrin says. “But we have to keep the conversation in the forefront. How else do things change?”

A few hours after her first post, after reading through the responses, Shiffrin posted again, this time with more anger and urgency. “You want to unfollow? I’ll see you to the door,” she wrote. It was liberating. She had shared more of herself than she ever had, and while some people disappeared from her feed, others showed up.

“I decided I needed to assume accountability and speak up rather than saying, ‘This is not my problem,'” Shiffrin says. “Discrimination and oppression and social and racial and religious injustice is a problem with all of humanity, and everyone plays a role, whether we want to admit it or not.”

Shiffrin continued to speak out, in interviews, Instagram stories and Facebook live webcasts. She reached out to athletes, photographers and educators in the Black community and listened. She shared more about her journey through the grief of losing her dad, while remaining protective of the details surrounding Jeff’s accident. There are some things she is not ready to say out loud.

“Maybe someday I will,” Shiffrin says. “I realized no matter how painful it is, it helps other people. Reopening the wound every time I have an interview is not the way I would choose to live my life, but it seems to have benefit for other people, and that’s the only thing that makes it worth it.”

But while she shared the deepest parts of herself with the world and messaged with other elite athletes and fans on social media, Shiffrin remained closed off to her closest friends. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it was less painful that way.

“When I do interviews, I speak honestly, but I compartmentalize the emotions,” Shiffrin says. “Sometimes what I’ve said comes back and haunts me later, when I’m alone, and sometimes I’ll have an epiphany. There’s something about having another person there who I know but am not necessarily very familiar with. It’s like putting it all in a box, shoving the emotions in there and then speaking from the heart without feeling the emotions fully. I guess that’s what makes it easier. You can’t hide or put emotions in a box when you’re talking to your family.”

TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas 2020, Shiffrin was curled up in a corner of the U.S. team hospitality area taking a nap, her race bib covering her face. She woke up shortly before the second run of the World Cup GS in Courchevel, France, and touched her face. She was crying. “Somehow I woke up and realized I was probably going to win the race,” Shiffrin says. “It was a weird vibe.”

It had been 10 months since Jeff’s death and nearly a year since her previous World Cup victory. As she visualized crossing the finish, she understood the source of her tears. “It would be the first race I won without my dad,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to ski fast, but I don’t want to win a ski race in a world where my dad isn’t there.'”

At the top of the course, memories of her dad flooded her mind. But instead of pushing them away, she allowed herself to feel them all and to carry them with her as she skied fast, getting her 67th career World Cup win by nearly a second. She won two more races that season and took four medals at the 2021 world championship in Cortina d’Ampezzo, the best performance at that event in her career.

“It was a very bittersweet day,” Shiffrin says of her win in Courchevel. “I’m going through life now learning how to do everything again when somebody who’s been essential in your life is not there anymore. You feel like a different person in a way. It was a time of rebirth.”

ALMOST EXACTLY A year later, Shiffrin is holed up in a hotel room in Radstadt, Austria, nearing the end of a 10-day quarantine after contracting COVID-19. “We were in the busiest stretch of the technical event season,” says her coach, Mike Day. “The Olympics were a month away. It was a perfectly bad time to get COVID.”

Shiffrin is unable to train or go outside. But this break has allowed her to sit with her feelings, to nap, play guitar and think. Right now, she wants to talk about something other than ski racing.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about mental health, discrimination, oppression, forms of social or racial or religious injustice,” Shiffrin says. She’s thinking a lot about whether an Olympics should be held in China, about what she can do, once she returns from Beijing, to influence change within her sport.

A couple of years ago, Shiffrin couldn’t have imagined herself having this conversation so freely, with a journalist, in the middle of a World Cup season. But she is changing, carrying her whole self with her into every interaction. She’s starting to open up to those closest to her again, including her boyfriend of nearly a year, Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. She’s also working with a sports psychologist to refind her focus.

Watching what Biles went through at the Tokyo Olympics had a lot to do with that.

“That was a turning point for a lot of athletes, including myself,” Shiffrin says. “We had talked about pressure and mental health — maybe we didn’t call it that — before, but I felt if I talked to the media about the anxiety I felt, they were like, ‘You’re just not cut out for this,’ and I felt like a bad person for feeling that way and succumbing to the pressure.”

Then Biles announced she was pulling out of the team event and the all-around to protect her mental and physical health while dealing with the “twisties,” and elevated a conversation around mental health started by athletes such as Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Lindsey Vonn.

“It was very relatable what Simone had to deal with in Tokyo,” Shiffrin says in December. “Being the absolute, undoubted favorite to win everything, however many gold medals she was supposed to get and being labeled, from everybody, as the undisputed GOAT and having to live up to that and also deal with an FBI investigation while trying to fix USA Gymnastics from the ground up. No wonder she got the ‘twisties.'”

IN BEIJING, SHIFFRIN stands up, dusts the snow off her butt and clicks into her Atomics. It’s time to do the thing she doesn’t want to do. “The next right thing to do was speak about it to the media,” Shiffrin says. She skis down the Olympic course, past fans and photographers, and arrives in the finish. She doesn’t crawl into a black hole or try to melt underneath the fence. She unclips from her skis and walks toward the mixed zone, stopping in front of an NBC reporter. Midway through her TV interview, she starts to cry.

“It makes me second-guess, like, the last 15 years, everything I thought I knew about my own skiing and slalom and racing mentality, just processing a lot,” she says. When the interview ends, Shiffrin takes a few steps to her right and, one by one, answers the questions of eight more TV reporters. Then she walks to the media center and sits with the print media.

“For so many years, Mikaela was someone who would finish a race and, good or bad, her facial expression wouldn’t change,” Pech says. “So, to see her emote that way and allow people to understand the toll these races and this sport have taken on her and how much she cares, from a mental health perspective, that was important.”

Shiffrin finishes her interviews and takes a gondola ride with her mom and head coach. With Biles’ experience in mind, Day wonders whether Shiffrin should opt out of the speed events, which might be dangerous in her current head space. But Shiffrin disagrees.

“I threw it out to alter the schedule after the first two races [in Beijing], but she was fully committed and not interested in changing the program,” Day says.

“Maybe that was stubborn or naive,” Shiffrin adds. “I just kept thinking of the next race as another opportunity.”

Looking back, Shiffrin says she recognized herself and the pressure she faced in Beijing in what Biles went through in Tokyo. Yet when she experienced the same type of inexplicable disconnect between what she knew how to do and what her body was doing, she didn’t treat herself with the same compassion she showed Biles.

“I wouldn’t say I was very kind to myself,” Shiffrin says. “But when you feel you disappointed a nation of people and there are just enough people corroborating that and saying, ‘Yeah, you are a total failure,’ and all the worst stuff I’m thinking about myself, it’s not a moment when you know how to be kind to yourself.”

She is still learning to protect herself in the same way she protects others.

In ski racing, there is not a term for the “twisties,” but Day believes what Biles and Shiffrin experienced six months apart were strikingly similar events. “Their sports are different, and they managed the situations differently,” he says. “But ultimately, did we learn enough from Simone Biles to avoid the outcome that Mikaela had at the Winter Games? Clearly not.”

ONE MONTH AFTER the Beijing Olympics and one day after the final race of the World Cup season, Shiffrin is in a car with Kilde. The couple is seven hours into a nine-hour drive from Courchevel to Munich, where she will catch a flight home to Colorado. Three World Cup crystal globes ride in the backseat. Shiffrin took the overall World Cup title as the best skier in the world. Kilde won titles in downhill and super-G. Beijing is in the rearview.

“Winning a downhill and securing her fourth overall title by winning in a discipline she barely skis is just so incredible,” Kilde says. “It shows she is the best skier in the world, on the women’s and men’s side.”

Shiffrin is thinking back over the past couple of months, trying to explain her struggles in Beijing and her success in Courchevel. The thing is, she can’t. She doesn’t know what happened. Maybe she never will. But at some point, she wants to stop dwelling on the past and move forward. That has been tough to do the past two years, because what lies ahead doesn’t include her dad. She is working with a grief counselor and learning to make new memories without him, to allow herself to be joyful and silly again, to not let the turkeys get her down.

“Something I tell Miki is, ‘You’re not making new memories without Dad. You are making new memories through him,'” Taylor says. “He is embodied in everything we do. You can hear his voice and feel his hug, just by living and carrying on. Getting back up after a tough Olympics and going on to win the overall globe, he is present in those moments by the very fact that he is the one who taught you how to manage the tough parts of your life.”

Shiffrin admits she would have loved to deliver on the expectations in Beijing. But she tried her hardest, feels lucky for the opportunity to represent her country at her third Olympics and regrets nothing. She isn’t afraid to use the word “failure,” either. It’s what she did in a ski race, not who she is. With each interview, each post, she realized people respond to what you send out into the world. Talk about your failures in negative terms and you become a failure. But carry your mistakes with you and learn from them as you move on and move past them and you become the sum of your response. You become what you do next.

“If I could go back and change something in my life, I would not choose to change my Olympic experience in Beijing,” Shiffrin says. “There are things in my life I would change, though.”

She pauses, asks for a moment before she continues her thought.

“All it would have taken for my dad not to die; all it would have taken is for him to not fall at a time when somebody couldn’t help him up right away. It was as simple as that. If I could change something, I would go back and call him at the moment when it happened. That’s something I would change. Not succeeding at the Olympics? That was not the hardest thing I have experienced in my life. It is important to keep some perspective on that.”

SHIFFRIN IS DRESSED in sweats, wearing disposable gloves and holding an oversized paint roller. It’s the last week in April, and she and Kilde are nearly finished painting Taylor’s new garage in a Denver suburb. Curious neighbors stop by and remark on their work. “They said, ‘Wow, they’re really good,'” Taylor says. “How much do they charge?”

Taylor laughs to himself. “It’s just my sister, Miki, and her boyfriend, Aleks,” he tells them. “Trust me, you can’t afford them.”

The couple have chosen to spend their downtime helping Taylor and his wife, Kristiana, move into their new home. “Some people might dread helping someone move, but for Mikaela, it’s therapeutic,” Taylor says. “When so many other tasks are larger than life, like winning the Olympics when the world is watching, having a small task you can accomplish can be so fulfilling.”

Like pulling the tape off a well-painted garage or learning to create a robust spreadsheet in Excel. “In difficult times when you feel weight, I find it really helpful to be busy, have things you care about and something to look forward to,” Shiffrin says. “One of the things on my list of things to do is learn to use Excel properly. I work on spreadsheets and find it really fun.”

When Shiffrin was still a teen at Burke Academy, overwhelmed by the stress of being a young student-athlete, she and Pech had a ritual. In the evenings, they lay on their backs in the grass and watched as the sun disappeared beyond the fjordlike mountains that flank the Lake Willoughby gap. Neither girl thought of her daily excursion as a mental health break, but Pech says, “We prioritized spending quiet time together and decompressing. Now I understand that was a way to protect our mental well-being when you’re living in such a competitive environment.”

When she can, Shiffrin still finds time to lie in the grass, watch the sunset and look forward to a new day. “It’s not what it feels like to win that I remember about races,” Shiffrin says. “It’s the little moments.”

She has had a lot of those to focus on this season.

“There have been great moments and tough, challenging moments where I felt really low,” Shiffrin says. “What happened in Beijing, it’s not something you come to terms with or accept or process. But you move forward. You literally just put one foot in front of the other.” Then do the next right thing.