Today, U.S. Ski & Snowboard launched the “Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund” in honor of Mikaela Shiffrin’s father, who unexpectedly died on February 2, 2020. The fund was created to raise money for U.S. Ski and Snowboard athletes aiming to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. As part of the fund’s launch, Mikaela recorded a video in which she spoke about her father’s death and the importance of resiliency. She also recently sat down for an interview with On Her Turf.
The last time Mikaela Shiffrin stepped into a start house, the world was very different.
It was January 26, 2020, and the women’s World Cup circuit was in Bansko, Bulgaria, for a weekend of races. Mikaela – a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose early success came in the technical events of slalom and giant slalom – proved yet again that she is a consistent threat in the speed events. She won a downhill that Friday, followed by a super-G victory two days later. With the pair of wins, Mikaela moved even closer to what everyone – including many of her competitors – expected would be her fourth straight overall World Cup title.
That was the mood in the finish area as Mikaela’s team gathered for a celebratory photo at the end of the weekend. As they climbed atop the podium, Mikaela’s father, Jeff, was exactly where anyone would expect him to be: behind the camera, taking the picture.
Earlier this month, Mikaela revisited that January weekend in Bansko, this time through a different lens. She picked up her father’s phone and began looking through the photos and videos he had taken at that final World Cup stop. She laughed at his selfie from the airplane. She saw his excitement at finding a giant Mikaela Shiffrin cardboard cutout at a sporting goods store in downtown Bansko. And she found a video he took in the finish area, capturing the atmosphere of the venue before the race. “When you look at the kinds of things people take pictures of, it’s like taking a peek into what they’re thinking,” she says.
As she watched the moments her father had captured, Mikaela thought about her own perspective at that time. “I was so worried about, ‘I need to make sure I do my recovery,’ or ‘I need to go to bed on time,’ or ‘I can’t stay at dinner too long because I’m here to race.’ When I think what’s the worst thing that can happen in a race, it used to be that I could fall and get hurt,” she explains. As for her perspective on racing now, she says, “It feels directly connected to what is the worst thing that could happen in life? What is so devastating that you almost can’t come back from it? And I feel like I know now.”
The Worst Thing
Following Bansko, Jeff returned home to Colorado, while Mikaela and her mother, Eileen, continued to northern Italy for a few days of training before Mikaela’s next race. In a phone call a few days later, Jeff – an anesthesiologist – was the first person to warn Mikaela and Eileen about the new coronavirus strain that was barely on the periphery of most people’s attention.
Then, on February 1, Mikaela received an urgent call from her brother, Taylor, who said their father had an accident while at the family’s home in Edwards, Colorado. As Mikaela remembers, her mother – who previously worked as an ICU nurse – went into “nurse mode.”
“She was like, ‘Where is he now? What are they doing? Are they going to get him to Denver? What are the next steps?’” Mikaela recalls. “There’s something about emergency workers and first responders – the ability to think in a situation where everyone else’s brain just freaks out – that’s amazing.”
After scrambling to make flight arrangements, Mikaela’s coach, Mike Day, drove Mikaela and Eileen through the night from Italy to Munich, Germany, where they boarded a 10-hour flight to Denver. Before takeoff, Mikaela recalls her father’s doctor telling them, “’We’re going to do everything we can to keep him alive until you get here.’”
When Mikaela and Eileen arrived at the hospital, Jeff was unconscious, his head was bandaged, and he was breathing through a ventilator. Mikaela says she crawled into bed beside her father and moved his arm so that it draped over her body. She stayed there for nine hours.
Jeff passed away later that day, his family at his side.
The Golden Rules
After her father died, Mikaela thought often about a question he posed when she and Taylor were growing up: “What are the golden rules?” to which Mikaela and her brother would reply, “Be nice. Think first.” When Mikaela and Taylor were old enough, Jeff added a third rule: “Have fun.”
“He felt like we could understand that having fun wasn’t just about going and doing whatever you want because it’s instantly gratifying,” Mikaela explained. “Fun is doing something well and the satisfaction you get from sticking to something.”
In February, Day printed Jeff’s three golden rules on stickers, which he gave to Mikaela. She stuck one to her helmet beside another longtime mantra: ABFTTB (“always be faster than the boys”). She plans on skiing with it this season.
To use Mikaela’s term, Jeff was “Team Shiffrin Manager.” He anchored the family at home in Colorado, paying bills, figuring out his daughter’s complicated taxes and sponsor contracts, and ensuring that life ran smoothly for Mikaela and Eileen as they trekked across Europe.
Much of Jeff’s unseen work became apparent to Mikaela in recent months, as she and her mother tried to figure out how to handle it on their own. “We’ve been drowning in everything that you have to do after the head of your household passes away and making sure that everything is set for our lives to actually keep going forward,” Mikaela says.
And then, of course, there’s COVID-19.
Mikaela notes that nothing has been normal about her preparation for the upcoming season. She typically spends part of the summer at training camps in the southern hemisphere, usually somewhere in South America or New Zealand. While she’s had a bit of time on her skis – U.S. Ski & Snowboard set up training camps at Copper Mountain in Colorado in May and Mount Hood in Oregon in July – the 25-year-old enters the season with less snow training than she’s ever had before.
Instead, she focused on strength training. In the spring, when it became clear that she wouldn’t go to a normal gym anytime soon, Mikaela did what many athletes did: she ordered workout equipment and set up a home gym in her garage. Her strength trainer, who normally spends part of the summer with her in Colorado, has instead been in Canada, coaching her via FaceTime.
Still, “I think I’m probably stronger than I’ve ever been,” Mikaela says.
Looking ahead to the start of the 2020-21 season, scheduled to start October 17 in Soelden, Austria, Shiffrin hasn’t set many goals. “In the past, I’ve had nerves and anxiety over races, and feeling pressure,” she explains. “That’s innately part of me, the caring and wanting to do a good job. But then, there’s a whole different perspective that I see now.”