Always an honor to write about Olympic and sports history.
Yesterday, as we in the “print” media waited to talk to Mikaela Shiffrin after she had skied out of the 2022 Olympic slalom at the fifth gate, a British journalist asked, tongue-in-cheek: “What would we say if we were interviewed in front of the world after every mistake we’ve made?”
“Oh right,” we responded collectively, nodding (and cringing).
“So, how does it feel to have made that error so early in the text?” he joked, mimicking a TV broadcaster. “How do you come back from such an egregious error?”
The 20-or-so of us in the media scrum howled with laughter (probably violating COVID protocols). The best humor is based in truth, and none of us was looking forward to the task at hand — interviewing a disappointed athlete who was “expected” to win. It’s never easy. As humans, we do not like asking questions that cause pain. But at times like this, it’s our job.
When she reached us, Shiffrin took some time to gather herself. It was her second DNF — she had only made it five gates in both the giant slalom and slalom. And for the second time in two days, she was facing the media without her usual smile.
I for one did not know what to say. As a human and a parent, I just wanted to hug her and say I was sorry.
After a long pause, one of the journalists asked softly: “Mikaela, what happened?”
Another long pause. Then she responded but haltingly. She has always strived to give honest, introspective answers, to explain her feelings and her skiing. But this time, she was struggling to find the right words.
“I have … I was … pushing and … maybe it was just past my limit … But I was … I was … I had the intention to … do my best skiing and my quickest turns. But in order to do that I had to … push the line, the tactics and … It’s really on the limit then, and things happen so fast that there, there was not space to slip up even a little bit … and I don’t know … I was … I started with a strong mentality and then I was out of the course. … And that was …
DNFs are not something Shiffrin is used to. Until the 2022 Olympic Winter Games started this week, she had competed in 228 World Cup, world championship, and Olympic races and only DNFed 16 times. In other words, in a sport as brutal as ski racing — where the slightest mistake can cost a skier to fall far down the results sheet, ski out, or worse, get injured — Shiffrin has finished 93 percent of her races. By comparison, Lindsey Vonn only finished 80 percent of hers.
Shiffrin trains hard for ski racing. It’s her career — her job — and she always goes for the extra credit. The combination of natural talent and hard work has helped her turn balance into her super-power. She seems to iron out bumps and ruts, with very little throwing her off. While others slam hard on their edges and/or flail a bit as they get thrown into the backseat, Shiffrin dances down the hill, barely touching her edges, always on top of her skis.
Tap, tap, tap. It’s as if gravity has a different effect on her.
She makes it look easy. And for this reason, we think of her as a sure bet — the one who will bring home the gold while others are long shots.
Even better, she is gracious in victory, thanking the media, the fans, her team, everyone who has helped her. She is humble, too, and at times, humorously self-deprecating — a true role model and inspirational champion.
Now suddenly, at the Olympics, she was in unfamiliar waters. Two DNFs on the world’s biggest stage. She was not sure how to handle it. She could have blown by reporters. Or stopped and only curtly answered two questions. We have certainly seen that happen before.
Instead, she spent 20 minutes with us — after talking to broadcasters and the wire services for even longer. And she opened her heart.
She felt like she had let everyone down, she said — her team that had worked so hard to get her to three Olympic Games, five world championships, and 210 World Cups, her fans who hold “We Love You” signs at races, her teammates, everyone.
“It really feels like a lot of work for nothing,” she said.
Her goal from the start was to ski aggressively. To really go for it. Already a legend, she still wanted to put on a show. Maybe the pressure got to her, she suggested, but she did not really know. She has learned to carry the weight. But who really knows?
“It’s probably better to ask a psychologist about that,” she said, then added wryly, “or everybody’s going to have an opinion anyway, so …”
“Honestly, I’m at a loss,” she continued. “It’s hard to really know what exactly went wrong aside from I slipped up a bit on one turn and didn’t have enough space to recover from it.”
For Shiffrin, it’s always been about the skiing — trying to make perfect turns, trusting in the process, trusting in her skiing. We have become accustomed to seeing her finish in spectacular fashion, winning by big margins. Now, at her third Olympics, with two DNFs on her record, she thought she had failed.
Far from it.
Her honesty in defeat is more inspiring than her skiing. She answered every question through tears and an occasional laugh, bearing her soul.
She wished that she had had more time on the course — to regain her balance and get back into it. But she also recognized that there were 84 other women — the 84 who finished behind winner Petra Vlhova — who also wanted more time.
“So if the worst thing that happens is this, I mean, I didn’t finish in the Olympics, come on,” she said. “That hurts, but in 24 hours, nobody’s going to care.”
Shiffrin has already experienced the worst thing that can happen. Her father died in an accident two years ago. It is a tragedy that broke her heart. It is, she has said, the worst injury she will ever have. Even in death, he has continued to provide perspective — that a DNF or losing a race is not the end of the world.
Now, at these Olympics, Shiffrin really wanted to call her dad.
“He would probably tell me to just get over it,” she said with a wry laugh. “But he’s not here to say that so …
“On top of everything else … I’m pretty angry at him too.”
Another long pause, as we quietly choked up.
“That sounds like a lot,” a reporter finally said, probably a mom herself.
“What could you do as a person, as a human, forget being a ski racer, to feel better in the coming days?” the reporter then asked. “You can’t go anywhere here, you can’t do anything, and you have a swab shoved down your throat every 15 minutes [to test for covid].”
Which gave Shiffrin the laugh she needed. The laugh we all needed.
Shiffrin paused, looked around, and then responded: “Despite everything that I’m feeling, I mean, if you kind of look around, it’s a pretty beautiful day.”
“And I have incredible teammates here. One of them got a silver medal yesterday,” she continued, referring to Ryan Cochran-Siegle’s medal in men’s super-G.
“My boyfriend is here. He got a bronze in super-G. He’s been working so hard to get an Olympic medal his whole career, and he’s had some really bad luck. And I have three medals. Those are still back home in my closet.”
She laughed again.
“As disappointed as I feel and as much as I’m feeling right now, there’s so much to be optimistic about. it feels like there’s a lot to be disappointed about right now, too.
“But you know what, the throat swab tests, they make you choke a little bit, but they’re not that bad. And the people here have been so friendly, it’s so welcoming and kind.
“And it’s COVID, it’s a pandemic, but here we are at the Olympics.”
Yes, here we are at the Olympics, interviewing a real champion, who has let us glimpse her soul. She has pulled back the curtain, letting us bear witness to the fact that she struggles with the same thoughts, insecurities, and emotions that the rest of us do.
Perhaps showing us her human side is Shiffrin’s real super-power. She is as inspiring in defeat as she is in victory.
I hope kids remember what Simone Biles did — and for more than the mental health benefits.
By pulling out of the women’s gymnastics team final the other night, Biles stood up for herself and her mental health. She’s another high-profile athlete who is talking openly about mental health, removing the stigma, and I applaud it. Mental health has been buried in the closet for far too long.
But my first reaction to Biles’s withdrawal had more to do with her physical wellbeing. She was not in the right headspace to perform well. And foundering confidence can lead to injury.
It reminded me of our friends’ daughter, a ski racer who tore her ACL several years ago in a race where conditions were questionable. The giant slalom course was deteriorating, and racers before her had fallen and injured themselves. It was not a situation that instills confidence.
But with pressure to score FIS points, pressure not to waste money (race fees! travel expenses!), pressure from coaches (perceived or not), pressure from family and peers (again, perceived or not), she pushed out of the starting gate. Then part way down the course, in poor visibility and rotting snow conditions, she crashed. It was her second ACL tear.
Had she said, “Nope, not doing it, not today,” she would have saved herself months of rehab and the mental anguish of being sidelined from a sport she loves. But as a kid, it’s difficult to make this call. They risk disappointing the people they so badly want to please.
But if kids can remember that Biles had the courage to say, “Nope, not doing it, not today” on the world’s biggest sports stage — with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and while carrying the expectations of her teammates and coaches — then maybe kids too can save themselves from potential injury. Not all the time, but sometimes.
Granted, there is a fine line between pre-competition nerves and crippling anxiety. And kids — heck, even most adults — can have a difficult time distinguishing between the two. Perhaps coaches and parents could come up with some questions to ask young athletes if they notice them looking out of sorts on competition days.
Or maybe kids could ask themselves, “What would Simone do?”
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I’m really honored to receive Vermont Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame’s 2019 Paul Robbins Award. Until Paul died suddenly in 2008, he was a mentor, friend, sounding board, guiding light, and non-stop source of comic relief for me. I still miss him (sniff).
From the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame’s site:
Paul Robbins started writing about ski racing in the 1960s. His work appeared in many magazines, including Skiing, SKI and Ski Racing. Robbins worked at eight Winter Olympics, every one since 1980 in Lake Placid. He had served as a press officer for the U.S. Ski Team, as well as a commentator on Nordic sports for CBS and NBC. He was a friend to athletes, coaches, administrators, writers and readers. He died unexpectedly at age 68 in 2008.
The award recognizes ski and snowboard journalists who, with the same commitment as Paul Robbins, perform their skill in written, broadcast or photo journalism with ethics, humor, good taste, and always with the promotion of Vermont skiing and snowboarding and the larger communities in mind. The recipient is selected not solely on the basis of one story, but rather, on a lifetime of service to the ski and snowboard community.
Peggy Shinn grew up and learned to ski in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom but did not start writing about the sport until after she moved back to Vermont in 1997. She began by covering local skiing for the Rutland Herald and soon was contributing to just about every ski publication in North America, including Ski Racing, Skiing, SKI, and Ski Press, as well as several other newspapers and websites. In 2008, she became a founding writer for TeamUSA.org and since then, has covered five Olympic Games. For her feature writing, she is a four-time winner of the Harold S. Hirsch Award, presented annually by the North American Snowsports Journalists Association.
On February 6, 2018, her second book, World Class: The Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team, hit the shelves. Two weeks later, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins won the U.S.’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing. The book chronicles the history of women’s Nordic skiing in the U.S. and how the women built a team that could compete on the world stage. In spring 2019, World Class received the International Skiing History Association’s Ullr Award and NASJA’s Harold S. Hirsch Award. Her first book, Deluge, chronicled Tropical Storm Irene, flash floods in Vermont, and how the state saved itself.
Until he passed away in 2008, Paul Robbins was a mentor, a friend, a guiding light, and non-stop source of comic relief for Peggy in this crazy world of ski writing. In World Class, she titled a chapter “Onward” in honor of Paul, as that was how he signed off on his emails. She keeps a picture of Paul, in his trademark tam, on her desk.
Peggy lives in Rutland with her husband, daughter, and hopefully one day soon, another cat.