Mikaela Shiffrin interview: ‘You can’t get in a fight with a mountain and expect to win’

Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games on September 25, 2017 in Park City, Utah
Shiffrin is targeting 100 World Cup wins - Getty Images/Ezra Shaw

There is a perverse irony to the fact that three days after I speak to Mikaela Shiffrin about her career, her goals and, of course, the current glut of high-profile crashes in elite skiing, she herself suffers a nasty fall in a downhill race in Cortina d’Ampezzo which now threatens the rest of her season.

One suspects it would have changed little, though.

The topic of danger is one that comes up more than once during our chat. How could it not, given the star names the sport has claimed this year? A number that includes, even before we speak, Shiffrin’s main rival Petra Vlhova, as well as her boyfriend, the Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, whose terrifying high-speed accident in Wengen last month threatens not just his season but his ability to walk again.

When we speak, Shiffrin is just back from visiting him in hospital and is in philosophical mood.

“I just think it’s a really, really harsh reminder of how fragile we actually are,” she says. “You can’t get in a fight with a mountain and expect to win, you know. But I don’t feel incredibly shaken.”

‘I’ll pull out of races where the conditions are questionable’

The question is whether all these crashes are linked somehow. Is elite skiing becoming more dangerous? If so, why? And at what point do you quit while you’re ahead?

After all, at 28 and with two Olympic gold medals already to her name, not to mention more World Cup victories (95) than any other skier in history, male or female, Shiffrin has nothing left to prove. In many eyes she is already the “GOAT” of Alpine skiing. She could walk away now and forever be a legend.

Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States poses for a portrait with her two medals, Gold in Giant Slalom and Silver in Alpine Combined on the Today Show Set on February 22, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea
Shiffrin is a multiple Olympic medalist with two gold medals to her name - Getty Images/Marianna Massey

Shiffrin smiles. She does not deny this is a topic that has come up more than once between herself and Kilde. As she admitted in an interview with CNN last week: “The risk of crashing and having not just career- or season-ending injuries, but actually life-altering injuries… that is a very big weight to carry around. Especially when you’ve experienced it first-hand, I guess the perspective shifts a little bit. I’m not going to deny that. It’s a very real thing for sure.”

Ultimately, though, she says it boils down to the fact that she loves skiing. And she is prepared to accept the risks inherent in practising what she loves.

“It’s weighing the risk versus reward, I guess,” she adds. “I do feel like I’m responsible. I’ve always been very aware of the risks. I will tend to pull out of speed races [downhill and super-G] if I feel there’s a skill set that I don’t have to do that race. Or if there are races where I feel like the conditions are questionable, or the visibility is more questionable than I’m willing to handle.

“I try to be honest about that. And my coaches, my team around me, my mom as well – she’s somebody I lean on to help guide me in these decisions. And she did ask me the same question. You know, ‘How do you feel about going into these races and doing downhill after seeing Aleks’s crash?’ I feel OK.”

‘Aleks’ leg was like a war image... TV wouldn’t show it’

Shiffrin sits back in her chair in her chalet in Cortina d’Ampezzo – we are speaking by Zoom – and continues. She does not deny that Kilde’s crash was horrific. In fact, she says, she wishes he had been even more open about the extent of his injuries – the Norwegian suffered a nasty laceration to his calf as well as a dislocated shoulder – because then there would be more appreciation for the risks elite skiers take.

“Honestly, his leg was like a war image,” she says. “Laceration doesn’t do it justice. TV wouldn’t share it because it was too graphic. But I think maybe there’s a way to share it that people can choose whether they want to see it or not. Because then people would see just how strong he actually is, if they knew a little bit more of the severity of the accident and the procedures that he’s gone through and sort of the recovery time involved… It was bad. It is bad. But he’s very positive. He’s got that Viking spirit.”

Shiffrin says her acceptance of the risks should not be read as a free pass for the FIS [the International Ski and Snowboard Federation]. Last week, after her accident, she published an update on her social media regarding her recovery from a sprained knee. In it, she addressed growing concerns around the frequency and severity of the injuries on tour this season, saying she “absolutely agreed” with those saying fatigue could be a factor.

“It’s pretty hard to put into words what the actual demands are like for athletes who are in the top 15 in multiple disciplines and consistently on the podium,” she says. “As Aleks [Kilde] recently mentioned, on top of the race calendar in itself, with post-race media and awards going well into the afternoon, then having a full evening programme on multiple nights is a lot. It’s really too much. I absolutely believe that fatigue at this point in the season plays a role in the injuries we have seen lately, including my own.”

Shiffrin knows whereof she speaks when it comes to competing across multiple disciplines. The American is arguably the most versatile Alpine skier there has ever been, as well as the most successful. Despite her accident, she still sits second in the overall women’s World Cup standings this season. And she could still hit the magical 100-win mark in the coming weeks if she can get back on her skis quickly. Already this season she has racked up seven wins (five in slalom, one in giant slalom and one in downhill) with five events left.

Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Slalom on January 21, 2024 in Jasna Slovakia
Shiffrin is one of the most versatile skiers - Getty Images/Paul Brechu

She insists she is in no rush. “Of course, there’s a lot at stake this season,” she wrote in her recent update. “But I also feel like the next few seasons there is just a lot of opportunity.”

‘I had to convince myself I had anything to look forward to after my dad died’

It is good to hear that because there was a time, not so long ago, when she was very close to giving up the sport altogether. Not because of the risks involved, but down to a lack of motivation. The death of her father Jeff, from a head injury suffered in an accident in the family home in Colorado in February 2020, hit her extremely hard. Shiffrin drifted for a season or two. And after what was, by her standards, a poor Olympics in Beijing 2022, she addressed her unresolved feelings in an incredibly raw and powerful piece on The Players’ Tribune. The guilt she felt for doing something they had always done together, now by herself. The grief she suggested she might never get over.

“I’m in a very different place now,” she insists. “I absolutely enjoy racing so much more now this year, last year… It’s been a process to get to a place where I can enjoy racing and so much of that honestly is just time. I would not say I’ve processed the grief. I still have a lot of moments where it just kind of hits me in an overwhelming wave. And that’s not any less painful. But I think I have a little bit of a stronger toolbox now.

“There are things that I care about in the world, in the sport, in my life. Things I have to look forward to. Whereas in the first season, the first two seasons, it was like a daily battle to convince myself that I had anything to look forward to. He was such a driving force in my life. I really didn’t want to know what it felt like to race without my dad existing.

“It’s been a process to get to a place where I can enjoy racing and so much of that honestly is just time. Hopefully, you know, seeing the ‘Shiffrin’ name out there and seeing my mom and me and my brother and our family, like, doing the damn thing…living our lives… I think it’s so important that people find purpose. And right now I feel motivated. I feel driven.”

‘I can still feel my dad’s hug after my first Olympic gold’

To do what? What is it that Shiffrin still wants to achieve? One hundred wins? That seems self-evident. Two hundred wins? She laughs. “I can guarantee you I won’t be getting to 200. I mean, I don’t have an exact timeline but I feel much closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning. I feel the weight of everything in my body, just physically. But also looking forward to opportunities that can come after the sport. But more importantly, can only come after the sport. Because in order to do this sport the way I want to, I need to be 100 per cent committed. I might not necessarily have a full tank of gas to keep doing it for a lot longer. But I certainly have a few more years.”

United States' Mikaela Shiffrin competes during an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom race, in Jasna, Slovakia, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024
Mikaela Shiffrin says a recent crash was a painful reminder of the dangers of downhill skiing - AP/Pier Marco Tacca

What then? Another Olympic gold medal? I remind her of one of her lines in The Players’ Tribune piece in which she recalled her first gold medal at Sochi 2014 (aged 18, Shiffrin became the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history). She could not recall how she “felt” at the end of the race, only the fact that the first person she hugged at the finish was her dad. “He was crying,” Shiffrin wrote. “He pulled me tight, and he was so proud. I can still feel that hug.” Would another gold medal in Milan-Cortina in 2026 feel like coming full circle perhaps?

Shiffrin smiles again. “It would be nice to have. But as we’ve seen recently, we don’t get to have the nice-to-haves in skiing… I may not be in a place in the next Olympics where I am the favourite. I may never win another World Cup race. The only thing that is guaranteed is that I have 95 race wins. And that’s it. As you saw with Petra and with Aleks, and a lot of other athletes this season, these things can go away in the blink of an eye.

“There’s a chance that I never even get to 100, even though I’m only five away. So I don’t take that for granted.”

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