Mikaela Shiffrin is accustomed to navigating around curves. The abrupt death of her father, a crippling back injury, and a positive COVID-19 test that required her to miss some World Cup competitions were all events that the champion Alpine skier could not have been prepared for over the past two years. Shiffrin was later disqualified from not one, not two, but three events at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in one of the sport’s most startling developments. She stumbled in the slalom, her specialty competition, then drifted off to the side, removed her skis, and lowered her head as the cameras focused.
Everyone encounters difficult times when maintaining a good outlook is challenging and you simply need to sit down and cry, according to Shiffrin. Except that everything got very public for me.
Shiffrin hit rock bottom at that precise time while standing atop an Olympic mountain. She might have previously covered up her burnout by reciting clichés like being mentally tough or suffering through agony. Shiffrin understood this time that she needed to look back to move forward. She claims that she has changed and that she no longer wants to hide her emotions.
Shiffrin joins the list of notable female athletes in recent history who have shed light on taboo topics like mental health, trauma, and performance pressure by being open and honest. It’s frightening because it reveals vulnerability, she explains. However, there is no longer any cause for shame.
Shiffrin invited me to her mountain chalet in Edwards, Colorado, a developing ski town 14 miles west of Vail, two months after the Olympics. With 100-year-old wooden ceiling beams imported from Austria (where she won her first World Cup podium, almost 10 years ago), an Elsa-worthy crystal icicle chandelier, and a quartzite kitchen island that sparkles like a glacier in the sunlight, her house is a mansion suitable for a snow mogul.
She grins and says, “Pretty cool, huh?
Shiffrin is still in awe of her accomplishments. Every time she crosses the finish line seconds (or light-years, in the world of ski racing), ahead of everyone else, you can see it in the shocked expression on her face.
However, this mansion isn’t shy about boasting. I count five crammed trophy cases on a tour. Naturally, there is a lot, Shiffrin admits. More than that: At the age of 27, Shiffrin ranks among the most decorated skiers in history. She doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon, despite some obstacles.
When her parents put her on plastic skis from Safeway as a kid in the driveway, her chairlift to the top began 25 years ago. Her mother Eileen used to compete in high school races, and her father Jeff used to ski for Dartmouth. Skiing was a part of their love story and more than just a pastime.
They went on one of their first dates in Vermont’s Killington Mountain before relocating to Vail, a ski resort with top-notch instructors, to raise Shiffrin and her older brother Taylor. Shiffrin immediately moved from the blacktop to the black diamonds, where she soon passed her parents. Burke Mountain Academy, a renowned Vermont-based ski-racing boarding school that has produced 36 Olympians, accepted her when she was 13 years old. Even among the greatest prospective skiers in the country, according to Eileen, her daughter was “far ahead of the curve,” practicing drills while her friends enjoyed themselves. She wasn’t one of those athletes who required encouragement; rather, Eileen says, “she just ran with it and others just couldn’t catch up with her.”
Before Shiffrin could legally drive, she made her World Cup debut and finished on the podium in her first race eight races later. She competed abroad in her junior and senior years of high school. Eileen gave up her nursing career to spend nine months of the year traveling with her daughter, and Jeff ran the business side of “Team Shiffrin” from Vail, where he practiced anesthesia. Remembering how he would respond to her calls at any time to offer counsel, Shiffrin adds, “Some problems can’t be healed from a distance, yet somehow he managed it anyway.” He served as our safety net and rock. When her father did attend races, he stood beside his wife at the finish line and held a camera.
“No matter how much success I’ve had in my career, it was like a constant battle of trying to prove my worth.”
Shiffrin became the youngest women’s slalom champion in Olympic history after qualifying for the 2014 Sochi Olympics shortly before turning 19 years old. Her success led to a Sports Illustrated cover, a partnership with Barilla on a cookbook named “Winning Recipes,” and an Adidas endorsement. Shiffrin’s fame increased along with the pressure to continue winning. She started to experience the first signs of what would eventually develop into an avalanche of performance anxiety in 2016. “It was like a perpetual battle of having to show my worth, no matter how much success I’ve had in my work,” she adds.
The pressure increased with each season that went by until it eventually began to build up before races. She recalls that she would initially feel anxious before her anxiety increased to the point where she had to throw up. In essence, I was experiencing panic episodes. However, “on the days when I feel like I’m not…living up to standards, whether they be outside expectations or my own, it’s kind of like, Why am I doing this? “, speaking with a sports psychologist helps. Says Shiffrin. Because, even though I am good, I didn’t feel particularly fantastic, and that plays with your psyche. She experienced “a wave of weariness” after winning her second and third Olympic medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Games.
With plans for the house in Edwards, which would serve as the family home, Shiffrin diverted her attention from her growing self-doubt, feeling that she was “going through a pretty awful divorce.” Shiffrin received a panicked call from her brother when she was out on a training trip in Italy eight months after she and her parents moved in. Her father received a major head injury after falling while performing housework by himself. She returned from Italy in time to bid Jeff farewell before his death on February 2, 2020, at the age of 65.
He had an accident, and nobody was at home to discover him, assist him, and provide the care he need sooner so that he would truly have a chance of surviving. Before continuing, Shiffrin takes a long breath to steady her trembling voice. “There are many things that still enrage me.”
She experienced insomnia. She was unable to eat. She didn’t even want to ski on most days. You start to question “Why was racing ever essential to me in the first place” when your priorities become so much clearer as a result of an accident or tragedy, she adds.
“It became hard for me to separate who I am as a person, or even my self-worth, from my races.”
Shiffrin was isolated on level ground six weeks after her father passed away as a result of COVID. She asks, “Like, how am I expected to truly concentrate on skiing race when this is all going on?” Due to the cancellation of the remaining World Cup tour that year, Shiffrin spent three months off the slopes and trained nearly entirely in her home gym. According to her, “it brought its wave of melancholy and a forlorn mood.”
At the same time, Shiffrin started putting effort into her life off the slopes by dating a Norwegian Alpine skier with shaggy hair by the name of Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. He tells me he has known Shiffrin for eight years, but they only started dating after Jeff passed away when we finally meet in person at Shiffrin’s home. Kilde, whose mother overcame breast cancer after a three-year battle, strikes me as completely dedicated to Shiffrin and frequently encourages her on FaceTime when she is feeling low with phrases like “Just keep on fighting.” I’ll never fully comprehend what Mikaela is going through, but at least I can know what I can do to help her, he adds. “I can be there for her as a boyfriend and a man she can trust,”
Shiffrin experienced a significant back strain before the 2022 Winter Olympics, which “came to the level where I literally couldn’t move, because it hurt that terribly,” she claims. She was then forced to exercise alone in a hotel room for 10 days while performing pull-ups on the bed frame while coughing and battling a sore throat after testing positive for COVID-19. She explains, “I was hoping that maybe I could just come back and everything would be alright.” But I was in a really bad place at that point.
She claims that even winning a record-setting 47th World Cup slalom less than a month before the Games made her feel “more devastated than triumphant.” The season’s busiest and most taxing period was yet to come, and I was completely exhausted. Although Shiffrin entered five individual ski disciplines, including two-speed events, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t give it her all. She would have become the most decorated American female alpinist in Olympic history if she had earned medals in just two of the five competitions. Her mother explains, “We didn’t anticipate that she wasn’t in the right emotional space. She kept quiet, which is somewhat typical of Mikaela.
“I knew I needed to face this, and I could either choose to do it in shame, or I could choose to stand up straight and, I don’t know, bare my soul.”
Golfers and basketball players both occasionally make mistakes with their swings. There is no tolerance for error in ski racing, where winning margins are measured in hundredths of a second. Shiffrin made numerous at the Olympics. She fell during the women’s giant slalom and was unable to complete it. Her signature event, the slalom, saw her ski out and drift to the side of the course where, for more than 20 minutes, cameras followed her as she competed for a podium spot in a race that many had predicted she would win. Announcers described her elimination as a “disappointment.”
Shiffrin finished ninth in the women’s super-G and 18th in the downhill after colliding for the third time during the women’s alpine combined. According to Shiffrin, “there’s a lot of discourse about the stress athletes feel before a competition, and that ultimately explains why it doesn’t go well. I had pressure, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment after things didn’t go well for me first since I knew I couldn’t go back and fix them.
This time, Shiffrin decided to express her sentiments after years of holding them in. The terrible times “are there no matter what; you want to run away and hide from them,” she says.
Shiffrin expressed regret to her supporters for her performance in the giant slalom, hit back at internet trolls who claimed she choked, and then wrote an essay about the overwhelming pain she had been experiencing since the death of her father. “I simply tried to explain what was genuinely going through my thoughts and hoped that someone out there could be reading it and thinking, ‘That’s how I feel now,'” she recalls of her best Olympic moment. “Like, I felt hopeless, which is a problem that many people have. Why not attempt to connect with that somehow?
Professional athletes were supposed to have unmatched minds throughout the majority of sports history. Shiffrin emulates greats like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who lately prioritized mental health in public by putting herself in a vulnerable position. Osaka has emerged as a leading advocate since withdrawing from the French Open in 2021 to safeguard her mental health. She now collaborates with wellness platform Modern Health to provide access to evidence-based mental health services.
Osaka claims that these choices to speak up and to abstain, when considered collectively, are assisting in ushering in a new era in which it’s acceptable to not be okay. More often than not, athletes are speaking out without embarrassment or stigma, and rather than being judged as weak, they are seen as human beings, according to Osaka. “This needs to stop being the exception and start being the rule.” The greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, recently echoed Osaka in noting that the definition of “champion” is changing to include someone who is “vulnerable and shows[s] inner power.”
According to contemporary sports medicine research, up to 35% of all professional athletes struggle with mental health issues. Dr. Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist consultant for Team USA, claims that female athletes, in particular, suffer from anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. There is still much to learn about this, but according to Silby, it has to do with a “perfect storm of factors that compound and feed on each other, creating risks for these high achievers, who can overcome such great physical and mental odds during their peak and hit such tragic lows.” She also points out that historically, sports have been rife with sexism and perfectionism, which can make problems worse.