Whoever declared that time heals all wounds, Mikaela Shiffrin would like a word.
Because two years after the most decorated alpine skier in U.S. history lost her father Jeff Shriffin—the man who dutifully cheered her name and wiped away tears of pride through her last two Olympics appearances—the pain still feels pretty raw.
"It's taken so long just to get to this point," she recently confessed to People. "I'm not even close to being done grieving, but every day I feel that spark and motivation returning. It's like healing from an injury. You get to the point where you can race again, but it still hurts sometimes."
In fact, there are moments where it's hard to believe any time has passed. "It can't be two years. Just can't be," she wrote in a Feb. 2 tribute marking the second anniversary of his death. "Just miss you with all of my mangled little heart. Just wish you could come back home. Just… love you most."
But the fact that Mikaela posted that missive from China, where she will begin her pursuit for up to five more medals starting Feb. 7 at the 2022 Beijing Olympics—means that the passage of time at least softens the hurt.
Because in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 accident that cut her father's life short at the age of 65, the 26-year-old—who first sped onto the scene at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as the youngest-ever slalom champion before collecting another gold and silver for the giant slalom and alpine combined in Pyeongchang, South Korea—wasn't sure she'd ever feel at home again in the starting gate.
"I've had the thought of stopping almost every single day," she admitted in episode three of her recently released Outside tv documentary Mikaela Shiffrin: Passion & Purpose.
As she explained to Today's Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb in October, "I wondered if it was really worth it. There was a really long time that I didn't really feel like it was worth it to care about anything, so it seemed like I'm not going to go ski race again because the most fundamental thing of an athlete is that you have to care about your sport and you have to care about doing well at your sport, and I just didn't."
And had she decided to hang up her skies—the one-two punch of grief and the lingering back issues that plagued her last year proving to be too big of a knockout—her 73 World Cup victories, three Olympic medals and six World Championships would be more than enough to land her a spot in the history books alongside idols Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn.
"If I had a checklist, I think it would pretty much all be checked off at this point," she admitted to People. "But I know I can still push things a little bit farther and accomplish just a little bit more."
That begins with the defense of her giant slalom title Feb. 7 atop Xiaohaituo Mountain—a slope neither she nor her competitors have had the chance to test out with the coronavirus pandemic canceling a scheduled 2021 trial run in the region, which is known for its high winds.
"None of us know it," she told Vogue, "but what I've seen from the videos, the hills look spectacular—unlike anything you've ever seen." (Including a jump that will send athletes soaring through the air for some 50 yards and "if you are flying off a hill at 80 miles per hour for 40 meters and you get a gust of wind," Mikaela noted, "that can really mess things up.")
But regardless of how quickly the athlete races to the bottom, she knows her emotions will be mixed when she hits that finish line.
After all, she's used to being greeted by her father, an anesthesiologist and avid photographer known to climb trees for a better vantage point mid-race, capturing images of his daughter with his ever-present Nikon.
"Generally, I don't care to get too emotional about things, because I don't like the feeling, except for when it's exhilarating," Jeff explained to the AP ahead of Mikaela's trip to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. "And every now and then, something happens that maybe you weren't really expecting—or you were hoping for and expecting, but something didn't go exactly the way you thought it might (and) the outcome was still wonderful. I'm thinking about the second run in the slalom at Sochi. Frontal lobes go offline and it's pure emotion and it's fun. It's like, 'Wow!'"
Having the chance to watch his little girl do what she does better than anyone else in the world, he described, "Standing up on the hill, looking down at the crowd roaring, just plain roaring, because my kid is skiing: That's like, 'God, are you kidding me?!'"
So, yes, Mikaela imagines "there's going to be some really, really difficult moments," at this first Games without him, she said in a video interview with the Associated Press. "And some of it will also be OK. So it's like anything in life. With this, the hard moments hit whenever they want. It's not when you choose to be sad or excited."
For her, it's "these moments of comprehension that he's not coming back and he won't ever be there again," she explained to The Aspen Times, "they come randomly or they come with a trigger."
Oftentimes it's during life's smaller moments: When a Jimmy Buffett or Beach Boys song pops up on her playlist or when her dad's oft-repeated lesson runs through her mind.
"He would ask my brother and me, 'What are the golden rules? Be nice, think first, have fun,'" she described in Passion & Purpose. "He thought fun was working really hard for something that you want and making it happen. I wish I could hear him say that again."
Mikaela lamented what pursuing the dream that first struck when she watched Bode Miller race his way to two silver medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, cost: "I lost a lot of time with my dad," she said. But the New Jersey native could always be found on the sidelines of her races or edging alongside her, older brother Taylor Shiffrin, who competed for the University of Denver, and mom Eileen Shiffrin on the slopes near where they lived in Colorado and, for a brief stretch, New Hampshire.
"It was always 'Follow me' or 'Follow Mom,'" Jeff told Sports Illustrated in 2014 of instructing his budding racers. "They didn't get a chance to make too many turns without somebody who had an awful lot of interest in their safety and progress teaching them how to do it right."
A post shared by Mikaela Shiffrin ⛷💨 (@mikaelashiffrin)
Jeff was the one to turn his background in clinical science and racing days at Dartmouth College into inventive ways to help Mikaela train and to nervously hold his breath as she schussed and slalomed her way to another victory.
And he was the one to reinforce his golden rule when Mikaela was left distraught by her performance in South Korea, her two medals making her feel less-than after she was expected to walk away with five. Never mind that a compressed schedule, high winds and just a scant few hours of sleep before her fourth-place finish in the slalom made the task exponentially more difficult.
"The disappointment from those failures feels incredibly real," she admitted to Sports Illustrated in January. "Even now." It was only recently that her perspective on the whole experience began to shift. "I spent a lot of time there arguing in my own brain about how hard it was, and how unfair it felt," she said. "All I did was waste energy, thinking ridiculous thoughts."
And it all came racing back in the months after her father's accident as she spent nights on the couch in their Colorado home binge-watching the 2020 Summer Olympics and relating all too well when fellow athletic wunderkind Simone Biles pulled out of several events.
Because much like the gymnast's experience with the dreaded "twisties," Mikaela found herself blacking out during races, unable to recall upon the muscle memory necessary to twist, turn and jump down an icy mountain at upwards of 80 miles per hour. "I'm not ready for this," she recalled to Sports Illustrated of what she told her mom and coaches. "I should not be doing this. I'm not there mentally."
As it turned out the process to mostly okay-ish was much more of a marathon than her beloved sprints.
Reading Sheryl Sandberg's book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, about the 2015 loss of the Facebook executive's husband Dave Goldberg, helped as did a new romance with Norwegian downhill skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. And then it was just about putting one booted foot in front of the other.
"I've learned you have to live your life and do the things you like and be who you are," Mikaela explained to People. "I'm getting my fire back….With every day that passes, I'm able to put more energy back into skiing."
On Jan. 11, she notched her 47th slalom victory, breaking the three decade-old record Ingemar Stenmark set for most career World Cup race wins in one event. A day later, she shared her thoughts on Instagram, thanking her team "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," and her mom, noting Eileen's "strength, love, support, and belief" in her "is the greatest treasure I'll ever know."
But first she thanked Jeff, her lifelong No. 1 fan. "Dad," she wrote, "I hope you had a good view."
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Whoever declared that time heals all wounds, Mikaela Shiffrin would like a word.