Mikaela Shiffrin’s Alpine Career Is Far From Over
I first saw Mikaela Shiffrin ski when she was 14 at an Eastern championship for top junior racers culled from nine states. Shiffrin beat everyone (including my daughter) by 11 seconds in a race usually decided by tenths of a second, if not hundredths.
I wandered over to a group of coaches from elite ski racing academies I knew and asked, “Who is this Shiffrin?”
“She’s Mozart,” one answered. The other coaches told me I would be writing about her for the next 20 years.
This is just to say that Shiffrin has been justly famous in the ski racing world since 2010, and that seems to have skewed our assessment of her. She is 26. But because she made her World Cup debut at 15 and won an Olympic gold medal eight years ago, she seems older.
That makes it harder to think of her as being at midcareer, but it is very likely true. Shiffrin’s stumbles in the opening races of the Beijing Olympics were unfathomable — failures, she later called them — but as she enters her final individual race at these Winter Games on Thursday in China (Wednesday night in the United States), it is important to recognize that a long Olympic journey is still ahead for her.
Explore the Games
- In a Limbo: The Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for a banned substance, has been allowed to compete. If she finishes on the podium, her competitors will be denied the joy of an Olympic medal ceremony.
- No Chance of Victory: Several skiers in Beijing hail from countries with little snow, thanks to an initiative aimed at increasing diversity. Their presence, however, isn’t free of controversy.
- The Quest for Good Food: Hungry athletes, officials, volunteers and journalists have been trying, with effort and persistence, to find moments of delicious culinary diversion, however small.
We have been watching just a piece of that odyssey. In fact, Shiffrin’s setbacks fit the historical narrative arc of many ski racing greats. There is abundant precedent that aligns with her underwhelming experience so far in Beijing.
Consider Shiffrin’s childhood idol, Bode Miller, who was the unquestioned king of his sport as the 2006 Olympics approached. He was supposed to contend for five gold medals. Instead, he barely stayed upright, or within the course, in most of his races and won nothing. Worse, because he partied into the night on the eve of events, he was mocked around the globe for not taking his craft seriously.
Ted Ligety was the defending Olympic champion in the Alpine combined at the 2010 Vancouver Games and top-ranked in giant slalom. He did not come close to a medal in the four events he entered. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway had already won three Olympic medals, was the world’s top-rated skier and a multiple gold medal favorite heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He went home without a medal.
Lindsey Vonn had a similar story in 2006. She was much hyped, but her best finish in five races was seventh (a bad training crash contributed). Vonn, who had dominated the downhill for the previous six seasons, then missed the 2014 Games because of recurrent training crashes.
But Miller came back from his 2006 debacle to win four more Olympic medals, and now has more Alpine Olympic medals than any other American. He is beloved and revered. Ligety recovered from 2010 to win an Olympic gold medal four years later and five world championship races. He is also beloved and respected. Svindal came back to win another gold medal in 2018 and retired as one of the best speed skiers ever. Vonn became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill and won another Olympic medal in 2018. She is viewed, to date, as the greatest women’s skier in history based on her 82 career World Cup victories. That is a description that Shiffrin, who has 73 World Cup victories, will probably claim in due time. Notably, if Shiffrin were to win her last individual race in Beijing, she would have three gold medals to Vonn’s one.
She would also become the first American with three Alpine gold medals.
So, yes, Shiffrin will probably leave Beijing thinking: What just happened there?
But the answer may be this: It has already happened to some of the best athletes in her sport. Not everyone rebounded, but many persevered and won again. For them, it was just a part of the Olympic voyage, perhaps even a rite of passage.
Miller won his last Olympic medal at 36; Svindal at 35; Vonn at 33.
Shiffrin is likely to ski in two more Olympic Games, maybe even a third when she is 38. As we are seeing, athletes these days compete longer: see Brady, Rodgers, et al.
Shiffrin could easily still have eight to 10 more Olympic race opportunities. She could win 35 more World Cup races. That would give her 108. (The career record is 86.)
Shiffrin’s Beijing opening race results were startling and newsworthy, and her dejected, side-of-the-course reaction to a second fall in three days was heartbreaking.
But they seemed consistent with the history of any long, sterling athletic career in any sport. And I would guess I’m just 12 years into the 20 years I’m supposed to be writing about her.