A non-medical ode to Ski Racing and Mikaela Shiffrin
Winter is here.
It’s cold enough to snow in the city, and to make snow at the ski mountains upstate. The days are short but lengthening fast, and the Winter Olympics are in full swing.
For a ski-racing family like ours – my two brothers and I raced and so have all of our twelve kids – that means a quadrennial opportunity to see your heroes get the spotlight.
In our house that hero is Mikaela Shiffrin.
Ski racing is a niche sport – most people don’t know much about it, or about Mikaela, other than what they see in the Olympics every four years.
But our kids grew up with her.
When they were little, one of their coaches, who used to train Shiffrin, would tell them stories about how she would calm herself by reading a book or doing homework at the top of the hill before a race, and then go on to win by up to ten seconds – unheard of in ski racing, where even at the youth level the top racers typically finish within one second of each other.
I could spend the rest of this post detailing her subsequent accomplishments and still be leaving a lot out.
Suffice it to say that at only 26 years old she is the greatest Alpine ski racer of her generation – male or female – and will likely end up as the GOAT. In an age of specialization, she mastered Slalom – a technical event – and then branched out into Giant Slalom and Downhill – speed events – which is an uncommonly bold thing to do.
The girls in our family stenciled a b f t t b on their ski helmets because that’s what Mikaela did when she was young. It stands for “always be faster than the boys.” The boys in our family would shrug – what can you do? – even if Shiffrin was officially slower than some of her male competition, she was unofficially faster.
And she is (or at least acts like, and seems to be) a real mensch – sweet, approachable, down-to-earth, and disarmingly open.
A few years ago we took the kids to watch her compete at a World Cup race at Killington, VT, which she won to the cheers of a record-breaking home-town crowd. She was the only one who stayed behind after the race to sign autographs and take selfies with her little fans. She hung around for well over an hour, and paid attention to every last kid. The picture of her with two of my daughters is still my iPhone wallpaper.
So when Mikaela failed to finish two of her three races this week – first falling at the top of the Giant Slalom course, then skiing out of the Slalom course at the sixth gate – it was a total shocker.
After being disqualified, Mikaela took off her skis and sat in the snow at the edge of the course, head in hands, for a full twenty minutes, while the other racers went by. My fourteen year old daughter, Georgia, who was watching from the couch, had a stricken expression that I can only imagine mirrored Mikaela’s.
For my part, I was secretly, selfishly, not so bummed.
You see, Kobi, my ten year old son, was having a tough season. Covid had upended last year, with most of his races canceled, and this year was off to a shaky beginning.
His first race was a Giant Slalom. He had been training hard for weeks – suited up and out the door every morning while we were still in bed – and he was a bundle of nerves at the start.
I was watching from the woods near the top of the hill. It was a frigid day and the course was steep and icy. After a good start, he picked up speed and started to get a little late in his turns. He went over a drop and disappeared from my view. I waited for him to pop out at the bottom of the course, where I could see the last few gates. After a few seconds, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. He had fallen midway and eventually I spotted him skiing down the side of the course to the finish.
Let’s just say it was not the most fun car ride home.
His next race went similarly. Nerves at the top. Good start. Got late and skied out near the bottom.
“That’s ski racing,” Rachel and I would tell him – the mantra of ski race parents everywhere. It means a lot of things.
It means that ski racing is a crazy sport that can be brutal and unforgiving. The only thing that counts is your time. The clock doesn’t care how good you looked or how hard you tried. There are no judges to give you extra points. It’s fast and scary and cold and dangerous. The starting gate is a lonely place.
The only way to win is to hold nothing back – full send – but then you risk a fall. Hold yourself back – half-send – and maybe you won’t fall, but neither will you win. And that holds true the whole way down, for each turn and every gate.
“Some people go entire seasons without finishing a single race,” I tell him, and pull out my favorite Bode Miller story: A reporter once asked Bode what was his best race. He mentioned one. “But you fell in that race!” the reporter said.
“Yes,” Bode replied, “but those first few gates were perfect!”
Mikaela Shiffrin was always the exception to the rule that you had to be prepared to fall if you hoped to win: out of her 229 world cup races, Mikaela failed to finish in only 14 of them.
So despite feeling bad for Mikaela, I still jumped at the opportunity.
“You see,” I said to Kobi, “if it can happen to Mikaela, it’s allowed to happen to you – doesn’t that prove everything we’ve been saying all along?”
Probably not to a ten year old, but there’s always hope.
There are so many things I want to him to learn about life from ski racing. How to train. How to compete. How to win. How to lose. Not to mention how to have fun in the real world without a screen.
I want to tell him, “You know when your coach says: train like you’re racing and race like you’re training? That’s true for everything. If you want to get good, you have to practice like it matters; and when it finally does, forget it all, clear your mind, trust yourself and go.”
I want to teach him that after you fall, you pick yourself up, figure out what went wrong, and fix it the next time. And have a sense of humor. And listen to your coach. And whatever happens, cheer on your friends.
I want him to know that although the world can seem fickle and unfair, a place where hard work, good intentions, and the right attitude don’t always pay off, they ultimately really do – because the path can be greater than the goal, and the true goal can be different than you think.
Granted, that’s a heavy load to place on a sport, and more than a kid can be expected to understand. But the amazing thing that I’ve noticed over the years is how much of it ends up sinking in, coming not from us but from the sport itself.
After Mikaela’s epic Slalom bust, I asked Georgia a question:
“Does what just happened,” I said, “make Mikaela more of a champion or less of a champion?”
She thought about it for a moment before answering.
“That was a full send,” she finally said.
“More of a champion.”