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Mikaela Shiffrin knows what’s coming.
In a little over a month she will step into the international spotlight as the American star of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where she will race in all six alpine-skiing events for the first time in her career. Casual fans may see Shiffrin, 26, as a shoo-in to win multiple gold medals, but victory is hardly guaranteed. Shiffin has struggled on the 2021–22 World Cup circuit after a back injury derailed her early in the season. New rivals have appeared. And she will have more attention on her in Beijing than perhaps any other Olympic athlete.
We called Shiffrin to get some insight into how she’s approaching the Games.
Outside: How did your early-season back problems impact your buildup for the Olympics?
Mikaela Shiffrin: In November my plan was to return home to Copper Mountain [in Colorado] and start training double and sometimes triple sessions to prepare for all of the events. Copper is where I do my glorious overtraining—it’s the place I would go to get everything in, and fix my skiing in every event, and get that repetition and proper training. Right off the bat I strained my back, and it took me out for pretty much the entire camp. This was supposed to be my most important training block in the buildup to the Olympics. This is where I’d fine-tune giant slalom and hammer some speed volume, and of course literally none of that happened. I feel very much that I’m not where I need to be from a preparation standpoint. I do feel very delayed and unsure about how these next weeks and months will go and how that will impact my plan in China. I’m optimistic that we can start to build back to each event and get the training in. But at this point, if this was a major checkpoint, I certainly feel behind.
How is the mental preparation for racing six Olympic events in 2022 different from racing five in 2018?
You have to be prepared to be exhausted. There’s a huge chance that the races will be postponed and then held back-to-back rather than having a recovery or training day between. We experienced those schedule changes in South Korea, so I know what it will look like. Still, it’s hard to prepare for something like that, where you have to be ready to race and then find out it’s been postponed. You wake up every day being ready to go on the mountain in race mode. Then, if it’s canceled, you have to be prepared to do it again the next day. It’s not as much physically hard as it is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I know how lofty a goal it is to race six events, and I’m not expecting that it will work. We will cross that bridge of whether I’m prepared to be a contender in the events that I ski, whether that’s all of the events or if I’m going to have to skip out.
Over the summer, gymnast Simone Biles opened up about her mental health amid the weight of Olympic expectations. I’m curious if her words had any impact on the way you approach competition.
I certainly followed the stories around Simone and how she was openly sharing her pressures and the anxiety she felt, even depression, and all of those mental health issues that come out with the insane amount of pressure that’s put on athletes, especially Olympians competing for gold. I could definitely relate to feeling, like, if you happen to wake up and feel awful, or if you’re having a bad day—and you cannot afford to have a bad day during the Games—you feel like you’re letting down your entire nation and that every single person at home is disappointed in you. It’s a really isolating and lonely feeling. You’re just one little person who is trying to compete in your sport and do the best you can, and sometimes it’s really terrifying.
I believe Biles called it the “twisties,” where you cannot tell up from down and you’re afraid you might hurt yourself.
We definitely get our form of the twisties, or vertigo. You don’t want to risk flying into the woods and breaking your back, or crashing and tumbling and blowing up your knee or breaking your femur. All of these things have happened, and they do happen. The risks in our sport are very real. We’re always aware of it. But when you get on this Olympic stage, all of a sudden people expect that you’re literally going to win or die trying. This is not healthy. You cannot sustain that mindset. The thing I’m trying to wrap my head around is that I know I’m going to feel that pressure. I’m going to feel some obligation to all of these people, who I don’t even know, to bring home gold so that they can be excited. I don’t want to disappoint them. That’s a huge piece of it, and I think it’s undeniably going to be part of it, whether I want to or not, no matter how stressful or uncomfortable that can be. I’m going to face it head-on. Most likely there are going to be a lot of athletes at the Olympics who feel pressure, anxiety, depression—I am going to be feeling it—and a lot of us are going to have success, and a lot of us will have the kind of failures that make you feel like you let your country down. It’s not particularly easy to swallow. I’d rather go in with an open mind about it.
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