Olympics 2022: Doesn't Mikaela Shiffrin always win? Might seem like it -- and she's far from done

Mikaela Shiffrin has won and keeps winning and what drives her, now 26, is different from when the debuted on the World Cup circuit at age 15. Photo by Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

There were four competitors left to ski the slalom course in Schladming, Austria, in the final World Cup race in the discipline before the Beijing Olympics, and Mikaela Shiffrin watched them one-by-one as they attempted to break her time.

When none of them, including her fiercest rival Petra Vlhova, could best her, she buried her head in her hands and leaned onto a padded sponsorship banner at the bottom of the mountain. She couldn't hide her emotion, or her tears.

"I'm just crying a lot lately," Shiffrin told the race reporter.

For the casual fan who mostly follows Shiffrin's career once every four years, the reaction may seem surprising. Over-the-top even. Doesn't Shiffrin always win?

She doesn't of course, but as one of the most successful American alpine skiers in history with 11 world championship medals, 73 World Cup victories and a three-time overall World Cup champion, it might seem like it.

But this victory was special. It marked her 47th career slalom title -- making her the first skier, male or female, in history to record that many victories in a single discipline. Shiffrin, 26, wouldn't let herself think too much about the record throughout the season, for fear of losing focus or letting the nerves get the best of her. After she tied Ingemar Stenmark's long-standing record in Killington, Vermont in November, she said she hadn't even realized such a feat had been possible that day.

"It's human nature to want the records, and want the trophies, and for people to say good things about you, but I try not to get too caught up on the shiny objects," Shiffrin told ESPN in December.

So when she broke the record on the mountain in Austria, she let herself, for a brief moment, recognize what she had accomplished, and perhaps more importantly, everything she had sacrificed to get there and the people who helped get her there.

Now entering her third Olympic Games this week in Beijing and with three Olympic medals already to her name, Shiffrin is, yet again, one of the most recognizable and famous faces competing and the posterchild for the American contingent. Hoping to compete in all five individual disciplines, one medal would tie her with Julia Mancuso as the most decorated female ski racer in American Olympic history and three would match the record for most by any American on the slopes. Many believe she can do it.

"I'm really expecting her to get a medal in every event that she competes in, because she absolutely has the capability of doing that and that's a compliment," three-time Olympic medalist Lindsey Vonn told Reuters.

But despite the attention and the expectations, Shiffrin isn't skiing for the history books or the headlines this time around. She's already done that. But she's not exactly competing solely for herself these days either. That would be too simple of a narrative for the philosophical and deep-thinking Shiffrin.

This time, having lost her father, Jeff, unexpectedly in 2020, just months after the death of her grandmother, and having lived through a global pandemic since the last Olympic Games, including her own inopportune bout with the virus, a refocused Shiffrin is racing for herself -- and all those who have helped her along the way.

"There were a couple of years where I was really worried about what was going to happen if I didn't win races," Shiffrin said. "What was the media going to say? What would friends or extended family say? So it was like I was trying my best to ski fast out of fear of letting people down. But I eventually realized I have no control over their reaction or their disappointment. I can't worry about that.

"It's an interesting question as to who I ski for though. Does any athlete really just do it for themselves? I think there needs to be some external motivation and people around you who remind you of the things you should be doing on a daily basis and your passion for the sport. And on some of the toughest races I've ever had to do, I don't feel like doing it for myself is actually enough. ... but when I look at my coaches or my family that helps me dig deep. I used to think it's not healthy to want to compete or race or train or anything for other people but now I see that there are some people who have done so much to help me succeed, and this is for them too."

Born in Vail, Colorado, Shiffrin was destined to be a skier. Her parents, Eileen and Jeff, had both raced competitively and shared their love for the sport with both of their children. Shiffrin's older brother Taylor eventually competed for the University of Denver.

But while everyone in her family was good, Shiffrin was a prodigy. By 14 she was not only racing internationally but winning. By 15 she was competing in World Cup events, and by 17, winning those races. In 2014, as an 18-year-old, she made her Olympic debut. She won gold in slalom and became the youngest to do so in the event in Olympic history.

The fame and attention came quickly. Within weeks of her podium triumph, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and featured on the "The Tonight Show." The comparisons with record-breaking fellow American skier and the uber-popular Vonn, which had started long before Sochi, intensified.

Shiffrin had never been nervous for a race before or concerned with what people thought, but after her success in Sochi everything changed. Suddenly, with everyone knowing who she was, she felt the pressure for the first time. She found the fan comments and media coverage devastating when she didn't win a race.

During the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, she won gold in the giant slalom and silver in the combined event. But she finished in fourth place in slalom, in which she had been the defending champion and heavy favorite. Despite her two-medal success, it was the negative reactions Shiffrin saw -- and still remembers.

"I would go on Instagram or online and see 'Shiffrin fails to perform' or something like that after I had a fourth-place finish," Shiffrin said. "The result wasn't even that bad but I realized once you win, that's the only thing anybody's going to accept ever again."

As a result of the negativity, she felt anxious about her performances and would latch on to certain comments or milestones. If someone told her about a potential record on the line, she would be unable to focus on much else.

"It would get stuck in my head," Shiffrin said. "And then oftentimes I would ski to protect something more than really racing the way I wanted to race."

When Shiffrin figured out how unhealthy this was, she didn't immediately stop her aimless Instagram scrolling -- she's human after all -- nor was she able to snap her fingers and stop caring about what was written or said about her. But she turned her attention to other things as best she could, and spending time with those she cared about, and over time the words hurt less. She's gotten savvy to the concept of clickbait ("It's a whole formula based solely on interaction and engagement") and tries not to let it faze her.

Her family has kept her grounded and in tune with who she is at the end of the day when no one is watching. Her mom still travels full-time with her and by her side for every competition as part-coach, part-support system. She said she took that for granted in the past but doesn't anymore.

Just after winning two races at a World Cup event in Bansko, Bulgaria at the end of January 2020, Shiffrin was at a photo shoot for a magazine cover in Italy when her brother called. Their father had been in a serious accident at the family home in Colorado. She and her mom rushed back to be by his side. He died soon after they arrived.

She wrote on Instagram she and the rest of her family were "heartbroken beyond comprehension."

"I really took for granted the idea that you'll see the people that you love again ..." Mikaela Shiffrin on her father's death

For a time, the grief was overwhelming, and she struggled to find motivation to continue skiing. Shiffrin was planning on making her return to competition for one of the final races of the season in Are, Sweden but it was ultimately canceled due to the coronavirus. She returned home with her grief and all of the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

Shiffrin was back on the slopes for the second World Cup event of the 2020-2021 season in November of 2020, and with her, a new attitude. If she was to be spending the vast majority of her time away from home and with the people she loved, and making her mom do the same, it needed to be worth it.

"I really took for granted the idea that you'll see the people that you love again and that's just guaranteed," said Shiffrin. "And now it feels more of a guarantee that I won't. There's always a chance you never see them again. And now that weighs on my mind a lot more heavily than it ever did before.

"So I don't really want to be doing this and traveling this much and going through this amount of stress and pressure, week in and week out, if I'm not doing my very, very best to make it worthwhile every day."

She's tried to do just that.

She finished in second place in slalom in her first event back, trailing only Vlhova. Three weeks later, Shiffrin was atop the podium for giant slalom, for the first time since before her father's death. Before season's end, she had nabbed another World Cup victory and four more world championship medals, including gold in combined, and became the most decorated American at the event in history.

This season, she has two World Cup slalom victories (and three second-place finishes), two giant slalom titles and two third-place results in super-G. Needless to say, she's considered a medal threat in multiple events, and she could very well cement her place in the record books. But, as in life, there are no guarantees in sports and her training and momentum were halted at the end of December following a positive COVID-19 test. She was forced to quarantine alone in a hotel room in Lienz, Austria and was sidelined from the first World Cup event of 2022. One doesn't need to be a professional athlete to know it's not exactly ideal to be unable to train just five weeks ahead of the Olympics.

But somehow her record-breaking 47th slalom win was just one week after returning from isolation. It only added to the emotion she could no longer fight. The morning after the victory, Shiffrin posted pictures from the day on her Instagram account, starting with one of herself and her mom at the top of the course.

"Last night was a privilege. Thank you," she wrote. "Dad, I hope you had a good view. Mom, your strength, love, support and belief in me is the greatest treasure I'll ever know.

"Team, thank you for continuing to pick up my pieces on a daily basis for the last two years, and for giving me the wonderful gift to simply keep trying."

Shiffrin will keep trying, and make every moment count in Beijing and beyond. She has the same dreams and objectives she always has had, but won't gauge success by what others say or how many medals she brings home.

"My goal is still to go and win gold medals," Shiffrin said. "That's still my goal. But I could walk away from the Games without any medals and still feel like they were successful if I know I've raced my best. Alpine skiing is a sport where so many things are out of your control, the weather is such a variable.

"So for me, my coaches and all the people who travel with us do so much grueling work, and the smile on your coach's face after you've done well is so gratifying. It's such a good feeling to know that you're proud of yourself, they're proud of you and you did a good job and that's really special. That's really where the enjoyment really comes from for me."