Like most athletes, Mikaela Shiffrin lives life in absolutes. She either skis well or she doesn’t. She either wins or she doesn’t. The details of the in-between are simply that: details.
But if Shiffrin has learned anything over the last three years, it’s that there is nothing absolute about real life. You can suffer the worst loss imaginable and still have hope. You can be utterly devastated and still find a way forward. You can mourn what was and still be happy about what is and what will be.
It’s those spaces in-between where you actually live.
“For quite some time now, almost three years, I’ve wanted to go back. I wanted to go back to when my Dad was alive. Such a big part of me felt like my greatest moments in life are behind me. And I feel a little differently now,” Shiffrin said Wednesday.
“I feel respect for my past and how lucky I am … but also for what I have now, even though he’s not here,” she said. ”How many things I do actually have currently to be grateful for and that — sure, lump in the wins and the records and all that with it — gives me hope there’s plenty to look forward to in life. That’s a different feeling than I’ve had.”
It’s not a coincidence this evolving outlook has coincided with one of the best seasons of Shiffrin’s career. A day after setting the record for most World Cup wins by a female skier, she won again Wednesday, and her 84th victory puts her just two shy of matching Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s all-gender mark.
The win, in the second giant slalom in Kronplatz, Italy, was her 10th of the season, the fourth time in her career she’s reached double digits. Shiffrin has won eight of her last 12 races, giving her a hefty lead in the overall standings.
And it’s all come less than a year after the lowest point in her career. Which came as she was still struggling to process the lowest point in her life.
A two-time Olympic champion before her 23rd birthday, Shiffrin went to the Beijing Games expected to collect a haul of medals. But she left empty-handed, not even making it to the finish line in three of her five individual races.
It was a stunning, and bewildering, performance, one Shiffrin still can’t quite explain. But it also freed her, in a way.
“I’m not going to fail bigger than that — probably. And I survived it,” she said. “I realized that pretty much everything is survivable. Everything that is going to happen in my ski career is fully survivable. No matter what it is, whether it’s great or it’s terrible, it’s just not the end of the world. There’s bigger things that happen in life. And I’ve experienced it.”
She’s referring to the unexpected death of her father, Jeff, on Feb. 2, 2020.
Jeff Shiffrin was the glue of their tight-knit family, and Shiffrin found herself unmoored by grief. The reservoir of energy she’d always had in second runs, part of what made her so fearsome in technical events, suddenly evaporated. Everything felt foggy, and there was a stubborn disconnect between her brain and her body.
“This is the first year I can actually memorize a full course. The last seasons, I could pretty much remember most of the first run and then I’d black out of the last 15 gates. And second run I had no chance,” Shiffrin said. “People were like, ‘Why can’t you ski fast on the second run anymore?’ I don’t know, I feel foggy. I can’t remember anything and I’m exhausted mentally.”
Shiffrin won’t ever get over her father’s death. There’s no going back and redoing Beijing. But by focusing less on those absolutes, and more on the in-between, she’s found her way forward again.
There is joy in her voice when she talks about her “amazing relationship” with boyfriend Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the Norwegian skier, and her family. Her mother, Eileen, is still one of Shiffrin’s coaches, and her brother and sister-in-law have joined them in Europe as Shiffrin chases history.
“I can miss my Dad and my Nana and mourn the terrible things that have happened and still be grateful for the great things that are happening now,” Shiffrin said. “Just understanding that maybe makes me feel a little bit lighter.”
And maybe, just maybe, it’s helped her withstand the pressures that are inevitable with this record run.
Shiffrin doesn’t see what she’s doing as erasing the accomplishments of Stenmark or Lindsey Vonn or Marcel Hirscher or any of ski racing’s other greats. What they’ve achieved can’t be forgotten or erased because they’ve already left their mark.
“The greatest accomplishment,” Shiffrin said, “is to be part of that conversation.”
It’s a hard-learned lesson, that in-between of cherishing the past while being eager for the future, and it’s the one that carries Shiffrin forward, on the ski hill and beyond.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.