Vail Daily column: Mikaela Shiffrin’s lessons learned from losing
Behind the Gold
Mikaela Shiffrin lay prone on the snow, her Atomic skis still firmly attached to her legs, her head in her hands. To her right was the finish line, within reach of her ski poles. Seconds earlier, millions of eyes were affixed to the Olympic champion as she charged relentlessly down Lower Ruthie’s giant slalom course in Aspen, building a commanding margin with every precise turn.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it was all over. One slight mistake. One momentary loss of focus. That was it. Two gates from the finish, her day was over. There was no win — no second place. There would now be just an uncharacteristic DNF next to her name on the official results.
Athletes process data in different ways. This was a mistake Mikaela Shiffrin just doesn’t make. One coach opined that she hadn’t gone out like that since she was a J3 junior ski racer. Today, at age 20, she is the best in the world in her sport. What got her there was a strong sense of fundamentals. She might lose races occasionally, but she simply doesn’t fall.
As she continued to lie on the snow, the world around her changed. Soon, she became an afterthought as the three podium finishers posed for the cameras. The announcers congratulated the victor. Course workers stepped around her to string a rope across the finish line as the race was over. Still, she remained motionless on the snow for minute after minute — processing what had just happened.
That evening as she watched the video, the pain of those four minutes on the snow grew even deeper.
“When I watched myself fall, I thought, ‘What are you doing?’ I never fall. And to do it in a race, well … It was one of those things you just have to learn the hard way.”
Those who have come to know Mikaela through her then 15 World Cup wins, three FIS Ski World Cup slalom titles, an Olympic gold and two World Championship titles have been accustomed to her uncanny ability to educate herself. While her physical prowess is what spectators and TV viewers see, the deeper Mikaela is housed in her mind.
“You create your own miracles,” she said after winning gold in Sochi.
Friday’s crash while leading the giant slalom was not a catastrophe to her at all. It was a learning experience.
“It was one of those painful things you have to learn,” she said. “There are some mistakes that are just inexcusable. It was just a mental lapse on my part — it makes me so mad. I won’t do it again — you can bet on that.”
She knew it would pay off. And it did.
“Disappointment can hurt you or it can drive you. Yesterday (Friday), I made the decision I would let it fuel me for today.”
Decades from now, no one is going to notice Shiffrin’s DNF in the Nature Valley Aspen Winternational. But what they will take note of is what she accomplished the next two days: winning by 3.07 and 2.65 seconds. Her 3.07 second margin was the greatest in women’s slalom history, beating the mark of 3.00 set in 1968 by French skier Florence Steuer.
“It’s nice to break records and make history,” she said, taking it all in stride. “It’s really cool. But, tomorrow is a new race. I have to find a different motivation.”
Ski racing is a sport where mother nature is just as important a foe as your fellow competitors. When you take risks in a ski race, you put a lot on the line. But that’s the attraction of the sport.
“I had that pent up anger,” she said. “You have to use that to keep up the fight and to take risks. You don’t deserve to win ski races if you don’t take risks.”
For all her ski racing prowess, what has endeared her to so many is her humility. She’s not one to celebrate or to gloat. It pains her, in a way, to beat her opponents — she’s genuinely concerned about her wins taking the spotlight off her teammates.
But she is also fueled by pride. In just 24 hours after crashing out of the GS, that pride had returned.
“Sometimes you just have to take a step back and say, ‘That was very special today.’”
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president of communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. This column first appeared in the Park Record in Park City, Utah.