How Olympic gold changed (or didn’t change) Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin

Lindsey Vonn displays her two Olympic medals in a massive trophy case. Ted Ligety keeps his two Olympic gold medals at his parents’ house. Andrew Weibrecht displays his two Olympic medals in the lobby of an inn owned by his parents. 

Mikaela Shiffrin?

She stuffed her 2014 Olympic slalom gold medal in the back of a sock drawer. 

“I don’t think about it every day,” Shiffrin said. “I rarely think about it unless someone brings it up.”

Shiffrin’s life forever changed in Sochi on that February evening, when at 18, she became the youngest-ever Olympic slalom champion. But she refused to let success change her. 

“[It] doesn’t feel like it’s changed me at all,” Shiffrin said. “I still think the same things are exciting.”

Going to a movie theatre and getting popcorn gives her “real excitement.”

But how about the 2014 Olympics?

“I still don’t know how I feel about Sochi,” Shiffrin admitted. 

Shiffrin did not have a lot of time to immediately reflect after her Sochi triumph.

She was still obsessed with how she could have improved her final run when she was greeted on the snow by her mother, Eileen. Before Eileen could even finish wrapping her arms around her daughter, Shiffrin breathlessly asked, “Did I lose time in the middle there?” 

Shiffrin was then quickly escorted to the media mixed zone to do round after round of interviews. 

When asked how she felt, Shiffrin did not know how to respond, having not yet had a moment to process her emotions. When asked about the gold medal, her canned answer became, “it’s heavy.”

Less than three days later, she was in New York for even more television appearances. She teamed with actress Reese Witherspoon to play Catchphrase against host Jimmy Fallon and singer Usher on “The Tonight Show.” She was also a guest on “TODAY” alongside Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety. 

When “TODAY” host Matt Lauer asked whether her gold-medal moment had sunk in yet, Shiffrin responded, “It’s a total blur. I’ve been doing this type of thing for five days straight. It feels like the race never even happened.”

Even after fulfilling her media obligations, Shiffrin did not have much time to celebrate. She returned to World Cup racing just 13 days after winning the Olympic slalom. 

The offseason proved hectic as well, with appearances at red-carpet events including the ESPYS. She does not pretend to be glamorous, although she will dress the part if required. 

“I think part of the fun about walking around in ski boots is making it look as awkward as possible,” Shiffrin said. “I really think that’s enjoyable, I don’t know why.”

Shiffrin’s star has continued to grow in the last quadrennial. 

On the slopes, she won the 2017 World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. 

Off the slopes, Britain’s SportsPro Magazine named Shiffrin the ninth-most marketable athlete of 2017, well ahead of fellow U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn (No. 50). 

But Shiffrin believes the external pressure started to have a negative impact on her performance during the 2016-17 season. She even threw up prior to several races for the first time in her career. Unusual, considering she has historically been relaxed enough to nap on the snow just moments before a competition, earning her the nickname “Sir Naps A Lot.”  

“I’ve never really been the type of athlete that gets extremely nervous at the start or feels that kind of pressure and expectations from everyone else,” Shiffrin said. “And [during the 2016-17 season] I started to feel that, and it brought on quite a different form of nerves than I’ve ever dealt with.”

Shiffrin’s mom speculated that her daughter’s anxiety was caused by her frantic schedule. Shiffrin traditionally focused on the technical disciplines: slalom and giant slalom. By expanding her portfolio to also include the speed disciplines, Shiffrin made more World Cup starts than ever before, racing at least once in every discipline for the first time. Shiffrin estimates that she had half as much time to train for the technical disciplines as she had in past seasons.

“We ran into a lot of challenges getting Mikaela time training,” Eileen said to NBC OlympicTalk. “She was not prepared for the races she went into, and she knew it. That’s why she was nervous.”

To overcome her anxieties, Shiffrin started consulting a sports psychologist via Skype and text messaging. 

“[She] helped to remind me of what mentality has worked for me in the past,” Shiffrin said, “and how to perceive outside pressure as a separate thing from me and my performance.”

Reporters became a source of outside pressure during Shiffrin’s 2016 streak of winning seven straight World Cup slaloms, one short of the record for most consecutive victories in the discipline. They pestered her with questions about the streak, and when it ended, Shiffrin admitted that she felt relieved because she would no longer have to discuss it. 

Shiffrin reminds herself that having media members want to help share her story should be more of an honor than a burden. 

“I just try to keep telling myself that when I feel like people are talking about me, and I just want them to stop,” Shiffrin said. 

Shiffrin might be reluctant to talk about herself, but knows that she has a story to tell. 

“If everyone was in my head, it would be the most epic, inspirational movie ever,” Shiffrin said. “I’m constantly thinking about how my life would fit into a really inspirational Disney movie scene or something.”

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