Why Mikaela Shiffrin bared her soul amid Olympic failure

YANQING, China — Mikaela Shiffrin spent her darkest moments of a dark Olympics staring into a spotlight. At the base of the “Ice River,” the ski slope that felled her, again and again, she’d hop from one television camera to the next, and bare her soul. She’d laugh and cry and probe, searching for proper words, exploring the intricacies of failure.

Many people would rather anguish in private. Shiffrin, who anguished more than most at these Games, broadcast her emotional psychoanalysis to the world. She spoke about heartbreak and showed it, willingly, in more than a half dozen interviews after each blunder. Last Wednesday, during a 20-minute session with print and digital reporters, tears dripped from her eyelashes to the snow.

That was after her second of three DNFs, and the following day, a spokeswoman told us that Shiffrin would not “be doing any media for the foreseeable future.” But she kept coming back, whether she finished races or bungled them, whether she felt relief or immense frustration, and I wondered: Why?

Shiffrin acknowledged Sunday, with some of her final words at these Games, that she hadn’t defined a reason. “Maybe I just don’t have any filter,” she said with a laugh.

But then she gave two answers that could become the legacy of her 2022 Olympics.

The media, and by extension the public, she said, deserved a window into her mind. “I mean, there's a lot of talk about this battle between athletes and pressure, and that the media falls on the pressure side of things,” she said. “And I just — it doesn't have to be that big of a battle.

“I feel like you're the reason that our stories get told, and it's our duty to help you tell those stories the best you can,” she explained. “And if it gets out into the world, and people decide they like it or they don't … that's their personal opinion, that's their decision, it is what it is.”

It’s clear, though, that she wanted everyday people to see an extraordinary person coping with sadness, and struggling to lift herself up after being thrown to her haunches.

“Every single person on earth goes through some kind of hardship, and you just need to get up,” she said. “And it's the most important takeaway from these last couple weeks for me.”

YANQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 17: Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States talks with the media after she skied off course during the Women's Alpine Combined Slalom on day 13 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 17, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Mikaela Shiffrin of Team United States talks with the media after she skied off course during the Women's Alpine Combined Slalom on day 13 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 17, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Addressing her heartbreak

Shiffrin knew after her first stunning crash that the first Monday of the Olympics was not the time for emotion. “I’m not gonna cry about this,” she said, “because that's just wasting energy.”

She had a full two-week program to attack, and more gold medals to win. Most athletes in her situation would give stock answers about short memories and moving on.

Shiffrin did, but also acknowledged: moving on is hard.

“I won't ever get over this,” she said of her giant slalom gaffe, and then she rattled off a list of other DNFs that have stuck in her mind. There was the time she straddled a gate in Croatia, “six or something years ago.” The time she skied out in Switzerland four years ago. And a few days before that, her last giant slalom wipeout. In an interview afterward, she’d wiped away a tear, and said: “It’s really heartbreaking.”

“That heartbreak,” she said here in Yanqing, “it just builds up, and it never goes away.”

Four days later, she spoke about the recurring nightmares that her failures had stimulated. She’d dream about skiing out at the fifth gate, again and again. She’d awake with a start, and “it really felt pretty awful,” she said.

She could have ignored this. Suppressed it. Kept it to herself, in hopes that heartbreak would dissipate. But, she said, “I just think it's fair to address that.” By addressing it, she normalized the struggle. She knows, as most people do, that it isn’t possible to simply stuff disappointment down a chute and never confront it again.

So she confronted it, publicly, on an Olympic platform, for the world to see.

'Just get up'

After the slip that completed the trifecta, in Thursday’s combined, Shiffrin reposted a sampling of the vitriol she’d received on social media. She’d been called a “choker,” a “dumb blonde” and a “narcissist.” She’d been called a “disgrace” and told to retire and much worse.

She, like most elite athletes, is used to it by now, and many would simply brush it aside. Shiffrin, though, has admitted that blocking out “noise” is darn near impossible. Years ago, the external expectations and pressure would make her nauseous. At age 26, she’s more comfortable with it, and more practiced in tuning out trolls.

“But there's moments when it's — it's so strong, and people can be so mean, that you don't want to get out of bed,” she said here Sunday. “You don't even want to exist anymore. You feel so small.”

She reposted all the invective so that she could say this: “Get up. … Get up because you can, because you like what you do when it’s not infested with the people who have so much apparent hate for you. Just get up. It’s not always easy, but it’s also not the end of the world to fail. Fail twice. Fail five times. At the Olympics.”

By facing cameras in her lowest moments, she hoped to spread that message. To show that distress is real and lasting, natural and difficult to overcome. She hoped to connect with people who’ve “felt some immense level of disappointment, or they've lost their father, or they've been bullied in school, or whatever.” She wanted to help them rebound from it by allowing them to see what she was rebounding from.

She happened to be at the Olympics, with microphones awaiting her behind rows of red barriers, ready to amplify her message to millions.

The Olympics, though, were also just “three weeks of my life,” she said. “And there's never been a period of time in three weeks of my life where I haven't felt some sort of disappointment, regret, hope, optimism, pessimism, triumph, failure, and — like, that's life.”