It has been nearly a year – 300 days, to be exact – since Mikaela Shiffrin was last in a start gate, and to say her world has undergone a seismic shift would be an understatement.
Her beloved father, Jeff, died unexpectedly Feb. 2, leaving her awash in a grief so overwhelming she isn’t sure it will ever fully lift. A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic brought life in Europe and the United States to a halt, ending both the World Cup season and any sense of normalcy.
As Shiffrin prepares to return to the World Cup circuit with Saturday’s slalom race in Levi, Finland, she’s still trying to figure out how to navigate her new world, while finding comfort in what’s left of her old one.
“I’m actually emotionally tired. There are moments where I feel angry,” the two-time Olympic champion said Thursday on a conference call. “I just don’t think there’s a great place for anger right now. I mean, we’re in a pandemic. I didn’t choose that. If anybody had the choice, I think we all would have chosen not to experience this. But we don’t get to choose those things.
“I’m angry that my Dad died. I’m angry at – I don’t know, how alone I feel most days,” she said. “But then on the flip side, I am incredibly grateful that I have my Mom near me so often and that my brother’s around. There’s things to be grateful for, too.
“I’ve never been a person to be motivated off of anger,” Shiffrin added. “It’s not about settling scores. … I’m really excited to race. I’m not even nervous. I’m just excited.”
Shiffrin, 25, has made a case for being the most dominant skier of her generation and, likely by the time her career is done, ever. She already has those two Olympic titles, one in slalom from Sochi and the other in giant slalom from Pyeongchang, as well as a bronze from the combined in 2018.
Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates as she takes the podium in a Super G race in the 2018 FIS World Cup at Lake Louise Ski Resort on Dec. 2. (Photo: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)
Her 66 World Cup victories trail only Ingemar Stenmark (86), Lindsey Vonn (82) and Marcel Hirscher (67), and she is the only skier to have won World Cup races in all six disciplines. She won three consecutive overall World Cup titles from 2017-19, and it might have been four if not for the month she missed after Jeff Shiffrin’s death.
Shiffrin had planned to return to competition in mid-March. But the races in Are, Sweden, were canceled, bringing the season to an early end.
“Even though it was cancelled, that was a really big step,” she said. “My main motivation was, `I just want to see what it feels like to race. And hopefully it’s a positive experience.’ And I don’t mean, hopefully I win. Hopefully it’s a positive experience to be a ski racer still.”
Normally, Shiffrin spends part of her off-season training, be it in the gym or heading to the Southern Hemisphere where there is snow. That wasn’t possible this summer because of the pandemic.
And, truthfully, Shiffrin’s focus was elsewhere. While her mother, Eileen, is one of her coaches, it was Jeff Shiffrin who handled the family’s logistics. Finances. Travel. The hundreds – no, thousands – of little details that allowed Shiffrin to ski without distractions.
As she, her mother and brother began familiarizing themselves with life without Jeff Shiffrin, they reached a point where they needed another outlet for their grief. Some way to turn the horrible nightmare that was now their reality into something positive.
There is something about trying to explain something that’s unexplainable. From the moment my brother called, to the 10hr plane ride, to the following 9
hrs that I laid in that hospital bed with my dad…(Cont.)
Learn More: https://t.co/HaYG49Mn19#[email protected]/tols3oyhkw
They created the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund to help support athletes during times of uncertainty. While the money raised – more than $2.8 million already – will help athletes who have faced hard times, hearing their stories has helped Shiffrin with her own.
“I used to feel like resiliency was something you could just reserve for people who are really strong and just, I don’t know, seem like they were able to get through everything and be strong and graceful. Untouched through it all,” Shiffrin said.
“It’s just as much about the moments where you don’t feel strong or can’t get out of bed or just want to give up,” she continued. “… Maybe (resiliency) is bouncing back. But it’s also just rolling out of bed somedays.”
Back in March, Shiffrin said her hope was just to “make a few good turns.” Her expectations have risen since then, but she is still unsure exactly what to expect of herself. A flare-up of a chronic back injury forced her to pull out of races in Soelden, Sweden, last month, and she’s only done slalom training the last few weeks.
“My goal is still just to make some good turns. Ideally, I make every turn a good turn,” Shiffrin said. “And hopefully it’s fast.”
But she is eager to see what she can do when she steps into the starting gate for the first time in 300 days. That she feels that excitement again seems like a victory in and of itself.
After everything that’s happened this year, it is not a small one.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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