ARE, Sweden — The course was steep, treacherously so, and the snow beneath Mikaela Shiffrin’s skies had the consistency of sliced bread left uncovered all morning. It called to mind the hard and crusty conditions she was exposed to as a child in Vermont and New Hampshire rather than the pillowy foam stuff she skied on, when she skied at all, during her recent month-and-a-half hiatus from competition.
Shiffrin, a double Olympic gold medalist, traveled to this Scandinavian Alpine skiing oasis this week for the first races of the rest of her career after the Feb. 2 death of her father, Jeff, from a head injury after an accident at the family’s Colorado home.
The Swedish Alpine National Arena was the site, during the 2012-13 season, of the first of Shiffrin’s 66 World Cup victories. But Tuesday, two days before the scheduled start of this week’s Women’s World Cup season finale, she said she felt “really nothing but fear” during her first two trips down the mountain.
“It was the most intimidated I’ve ever felt, I think,” said Shiffrin, who admitted she had considered stopping.
No one outside her small coaching team was watching. No race clock was running. No one would have been the wiser had Shiffrin removed her skis and called it a day, called it a season. But the goal of making a few good turns, the best way she could think to honor her father, kept her going.
So she made five more runs and by the seventh, Shiffrin felt redeemed. Reborn. She had made a few good turns and then some.
“It was probably the biggest, most successful day that I’ve had so far, maybe in my career,” Shiffrin said.
She added, “I started out the day feeling really nothing but fear and ended up the day feeling maybe a healthy dose of that awareness but feeling the passion and the love and the excitement for it again.”
Without stepping in the start gate, Shiffrin had accomplished what she had traveled more than 4,000 miles to do. So she accepted with equanimity the news, on Wednesday — less than 22 hours before the start of Thursday’s parallel slalom — that the competition had been canceled in the cascading fallout from the deadly spread of the coronavirus.
With next week’s World Cup finals in Italy already called off, the scrapping of this week’s competition delivered the overall World Cup title to the Italian Federica Brignone, ending the three-year reign of Shiffrin, who lost her 370-point lead in the weeks after she lost her 65-year-old father.
Shiffrin, who will turn 25 on Friday, could see the sublimity in the situation. Her father had always emphasized form over results. And here she sat, with no choice but to return to Colorado content to do the same.
“If nothing else, I’m grateful that we came this far, even with the races canceled,” Shiffrin said. “So I got to get out there for that training session with full intentions of preparing for a race and skied with that intensity. I accomplished that, and that was all I had set out to do.”
“It was maybe in the long term even better that I didn’t step into the start gate and have to deal with the mental challenges of knowing that the overall title was still in the cards,” she added, “because the competitor in me probably would have come out and said, ‘I care about the results,’ even though that was never my focus.”
Shiffrin spoke by telephone in an interview that took place with both subject and reporter stuck indoors only a few hundred yards apart, comfortably beyond the social distancing guideline of 6 feet suggested by health officials. The last headache Shiffrin needed was to develop coronavirus symptoms and face a quarantine. To be safe, she said, she was keeping everybody — reporters, friends and competitors alike — at a physical remove.
“I came here loaded with my bleach bottle and hand wipes and stopped just short of spraying people in the face if they got too close to me,” she said with a laugh.
The coronavirus threat didn’t keep friends and competitors from trying to wrap Shiffrin in welcome-back hugs. On Wednesday night, on their way out of town, two of Shiffrin’s United States teammates, Paula Moltzan and Nina O’Brien, stopped by to deliver an early birthday present: a basket containing 25 individually wrapped gifts. Shiffrin gave them foot bumps in lieu of an embrace, and then repeated to them what she has told everyone else in recent days: “I am leaning on you guys, just not to the point of physical contact.”
Shiffrin had spent most of Wednesday, a designated day off from training, poring over her sponsor contracts. Outside, snow fell as softly as confetti all morning, conditions that would have delighted her father, she said. “I feel like he sort of lives in the snowflakes that fall,” she said. But that was not why he was very much on her mind.
“Up to this point, my dad was the one who would read over my contracts,” said Shiffrin, who was making notes about one of them when she received the text from event organizers informing her that her longest season was officially over.
“I was really looking forward to these races, if nothing else because it’s been a place to put my mind and my energy for the last couple of weeks,” Shiffrin said. “A place to focus but also a distraction.”
The hardest step in mourning is that first one that takes you out of the house and out to face the world again. So whatever Shiffrin lost by not being able to race three times this week, she recognized that she gained infinitely more.
“This last week,” she said, “has been really monumental in the whole grieving process.”