How Shiffrin Won Without Even Stepping into the Start Gate
After missing more than a month of competition due to the tragic passing of her father, Olympic and World Champion Mikaela Shiffrin made the decision on March 5th to return to Europe for the final FIS Ski World Cup races of the season.
On the morning of March 11th, she announced she would be stepping into the start gate in Åre, Sweden—in what would be the final three races of the 2019-20 season. Later that day, FIS announced that the Åre, Sweden race series had been cancelled, therefore ending the season. At that point, Mikaela was still in the running for the overall, giant slalom, and slalom globes...though it would have been a challenge to win all three, it was possible. But, it wasn't about globes. Or winning. For Mikaela, just getting on a plane and heading over to Europe was a victory after all she had been through.
Originally, the New York Times had planned to travel to Åre to cover Mikaela's quest for her fourth-straight overall title, but when reporter Karen Crouse boarded her flight to head to Europe, she had different goals. Her plan would be to cover Mikaela's potential return to the start gate, and the recent coronavirus outbreak. As it turns out, the coronavirus outbreak would lead to the abrupt end to the season, but Karen felt strongly about her message: that Mikaela had already won, without even stepping into the start gate. In her piece, entitled "For Mikaela Shiffrin, a Week Without Races Is a Resounding Success," Karen focused on what that return was like for Mikaela.
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.
As Mikaela said in the article,
If nothing else, I’m grateful that we came this far, even with the races canceled. 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, because the competitor in me probably would have come out and said, ‘I care about the results,’ even though that was never my focus.
One of the hardest steps in mourning is the "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," wrote Karen.
Mikaela's 2019-20 Season In Numbers
Though many—including Mikaela herself—believed this season to be disappointing compared to last year, it was what most athletes would consider a dream season. Nothing can live up to the historic 2018-19 season Mikaela had, with 17 World Cup victories, three World Championship medals, and record-smashing performances week in and week out. Vreni Schneider's 14 victories in a season was a record that stood for 30 years. Mikaela's 17 victories in a season will be hard for anyone to break...ever. Again, not impossible. But it will be extremely difficult.
This season, Mikaela won six World cup races across four disciplines. She podiumed in 13 of 19 races. In Levi, she became the winningest slalom skier of all time, surpassing Ingemar Stenmark (40 victories) with 41 slalom victories. She finished the season with two more victories, bringing her career-win total to 43 slalom victories—tied for most discipline wins among women (Lindsey Vonn has 43 downhill victories, while Swede Ingemar Stenmark leads for the men with 46 giant slalom victories).
With her massive 1.36-second margin giant slalom win in Lienz, Austria on December 28, 2019, Mikaela made history yet again as she earned 63rd World Cup victory, surpassing Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll into fourth on the all-time win list behind Marcel Hirscher (67), Lindsey Vonn (82) and Ingemar Stenmark (86). Across men and women, she tied Slovakia's Petra Vlhova and France's Alexis Pinturault for most World Cup victories, with six wins.
In a near-perfect weekend in late January, with her mother and father there to witness her brilliance, Mikaela was first, fourth and first in two downhills and a super-G on a speed track she had never been down before, in Bansko, Bulgaria - amassing 250 points on the weekend. Her win tally? Career victory number 66, just one shy of Marcel Hirscher's 67 victories. Despite missing eight races due to her father's passing, Mikaela ended up second in the overall standings, second in the slalom standings (by just 20 points), third in the giant slalom standings, fifth in the downhill standings, and seventh in super-G standings. For the fourth-straight season, (again, despite missing eight races), Mikaela was the top earner in prize money on the World Cup circuit, among the men and women.
Buckle up and get excited, the 2020-21 season will be one for the ages.