An Unbreakable Bond

The past year should have been a victory lap for Mikaela Shiffrin. Instead, it left her on empty after she lost first her Nana, then her dad, then her skiing. But she refused to let it break her, and now her spirit is returning thanks to one very special relationship.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorMay 5, 2020

Mikaela Shiffrin didn't want to drive home. The blizzard roaring outside her car windows wouldn't let up. Snow pelted down as if it were angry—rebelling against something, someone. Shiffrin, riding with her mother, Eileen, thought it was a sign. A sign that she shouldn't be in the United States. She should have been in Italy, in Cortina d'Ampezzo, competing in the World Cup Skiing Finals, but the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The snow raged on, turning a two-hour drive from Denver to Edwards, Colorado, into an eight-hour feat. A nightmare drive to culminate a nightmare season in which the people Shiffrin loved most fell away, one by one. First, her grandmother, her "Nana," Eileen's mother, Pauline Condron, died in October at 98 years old. Then, in February, Mikaela's father, Jeff, died at 65 after an accident at the family's home. Mikaela and Eileen were in Europe when Jeff suffered a head injury but were able to return to be at his side in the hospital before he passed.

When Mikaela and Eileen finally walked into their home on this dreary day in March, Mikaela felt the strange sensation of familiarity and distance at once—occupying a place as one person and then returning to it as another.

She could feel the little girl she used to be. Back when things were normal. She felt her father's presence in every corner, on every wall. She heard him. The creak of the garage door opening when he used to come home after work, when she'd squeal, "Dad's home!" The way he used to ask her about her races: "No, not how you placed," he'd say, breaking into a smile. "That's not what it's about. Did you make any good turns?"

But she's no longer 10, and he's no longer with her. And that's a reality she's come to realize she can't escape.

Mikaela, now 25, thought of where she'd sleep later that night. "I didn't want to be alone," she says. Couldn't be alone. Neither could her mother. So Mikaela started sleeping in her mother's bed every night. Still does.

Tangled, holding on to each other, especially when Mikaela wakes in the middle of the night from a bad dream, the two of them feel broken and comforted, peaceful and tormented.

But losing one parent has made Mikaela fearful of losing the other. What if it was my entire family? she thinks to herself. What if they were all in a car crash? A plane crash? She shudders with fear, thinking of losing her brother, Taylor, who is also living with them, along with Muffin, their beloved gray European shorthair cat. Mikaela brings her attention back to the bed. To her mom. She feels thankful. "Gratitude has been the hallmark of my survival," she says.

Eileen is Mikaela's coach, the person who understands her like nobody else. Mikaela calls her mom her edge, her best friend. The reason she wins.

And does she ever win. Mikaela has won two Olympic gold medals and four World Championship golds, in addition to her four straight World Cup season titles, 66 total World Cup wins and 43 World Cup Slalom wins. She is generally considered the best slalom skier of all time. "Mikaela is a once-in-a-century type athlete," says Bode Miller, a close friend and Olympic and World Championship gold medalist. And Eileen has been there at every turn. Spending a decade on the road with her daughter, sleeping in hotel rooms across Europe, flying, driving, chasing Mikaela's dream. The two even have their own language.

Taylor describes it as "baby talk." When Eileen senses Mikaela is down, she breaks out into goo-goo-ga-ga talk, in the silliest voice, as one would with a baby. Then Mikaela starts talking like a baby too, and they laugh and laugh. They forget about the pain. The pressure. The need to win.

They need each other now more than ever. Mikaela says they haven't even begun to truly grieve. "We've become more dependent on each other," Eileen adds.

But no baby talk—nothing, really—can take away the loss of a husband, the loss of a father.

Mikaela looks at herself in the mirror and realizes how much she's had to grow since the 2019-20 racing season began. Since her career began, really. For so long, she's been going, going, going, without a break. Flying, driving, skiing. Flying, driving, skiing. Empty hotel rooms. Swiss francs. It all caught up with her this year, and she couldn't excel on sheer talent and grit anymore. Her dominance on the slopes wavered. And now, without her Nana, without her dad, what is she even chasing?

Who is she without the people she loves?

Many friends have said to Eileen over the years, in a not-so-kind tone: When are you going to stop following your daughter around? They say it as if she's merely trotting behind Mikaela, making sure she eats her meals and gets her sleep—not as if she's coaching her into one of the world's most dominant athletes.

Mikaela and Eileen Shiffrin in 2018.
Mikaela and Eileen Shiffrin in 2018.JURE MAKOVEC/Getty Images

Mikaela has heard the jabs too. Do you really think that's healthy, that your mom is always there with you? And the two did try backing away gradually over the past year. Eileen skipped a couple of camps during the summer when her mother began to feel sick.

Mikaela felt different without her mom. It's lonely, being overseas. But Mikaela, Eileen and the family felt maybe it was time to try to explore some form of distance. In addition to her concern over Nana's health, Eileen wanted to spend more time with Jeff. And Mikaela felt like she should maybe try to spend some time on her own too.

"You've been my most stable factor. You've been my edge," Mikaela remembers telling her mom. "When people ask me what my secret is, it's you, Mom. Nobody else." She paused. "But, I don't feel comfortable continuing to ask you to put your life on hold."

Eileen was so used to splitting herself into 10 pieces to do everything, to be there for everyone. When her mother died, a few days before the 2019-20 season started in November, she regretted not having spent enough time with her. But it wasn't easy or simple going back and forth overseas, and there was never a good time to leave Mikaela. Every race was monumental. Every training was consequential.

Heartbroken, Eileen decided to step down as coach. Be with Jeff, with Taylor.

Mikaela was a wreck. She was extremely close with her Nana. Calls her an "angel." Nana used to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to watch Mikaela race on TV.

Eileen, Nana and Mikaela in 2017
Eileen, Nana and Mikaela in 2017Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It didn't help that Mikaela was also still recovering from her breakup with her boyfriend a few months earlier.

She felt exhausted. She hadn't taken a break during or after her miraculous, record-setting 2018-19 season that included 17 World Cup victories and three World Championship medals. (Vreni Schneider's 14 victories in a season was a record that stood for 30 years. Mikaela's 17 might be hard for anyone to break ever.)

"There was so much pressure on her to continue to perform," says Jeff Lackie, one of her coaches at U.S. Ski & Snowboard and also her strength and conditioning coach. "At times, it was unimaginable how she was going to summon the energy to continue to do what she was doing. And yet she would. You just knew you were in the presence of greatness."

Mikaela started off the 2019-20 campaign strong, winning several races, but then she began to struggle. Began to compare herself to last season at every turn. Last season at this point, I had won this race, and now I'm not even on the podium. "I was feeling like the current version of myself was not as good as the previous version of myself," she says. Yet she was working harder than ever before. Somehow I'm worse. What am I doing wrong?

Frustrated, she worked even harder. "Her work ethic is unprecedented in our sport," says Paul Kristofic, the head women's alpine coach at U.S. Ski & Snowboard. "She never takes a single stretch of snow for granted."

Mikaela felt a little lost without her mom. She was used to their routines. They would go skiing together, between sessions, if Mikaela struggled; their legs would become part of the skis, and they'd fix whatever was wrong. Together. Or, before races. When Mikaela is nervous, her mom's voice is one of the few things that can calm her: "You've got the best slalom on this hill," Eileen often tells her.

They are similar. Both driven. Even have the same high-pitched, cheerful voice. "They are the other half of one soul, one heart," Taylor says. "When you take the two away from each other, they can't really thrive as well as when they are together."

But it isn't always easy. "It's exhausting trying to be Mikaela's coach," Eileen says. Not because of who her daughter is but because of what she is trying to achieve. "She is trying to do something very, very few athletes do."

Eileen returned to Europe after Christmas. Mikaela had been through a tough string of races, not winning one in seven tries starting December 3, only medaling in three and finishing an unthinkable 17th in a giant slalom event on December 17. Training a few days with her mom turned her around, starting with two straight first-place finishes on December 28 and 29. After that, the family agreed Eileen should stay. "I think going through that process brought us closer because we made an effort to try and have a 'normal' relationship," Eileen says.

It's a familiar feeling for some mothers and daughters as they get older. They try to sway from each other, try to be without each other, try to imagine not turning into each other. But some force draws them back in.

At the start of the new year, Mikaela began to feel like she was getting back on track mentally. She was finally able to let go of last season and view this season as its own. She performed magnificently in Bansko, Bulgaria, winning two of three races and claiming her fourth World Cup super-G. The best part? Both of her parents came to see her race. They had so much fun, laughing together. Being with one another.

The day after Jeff returned home, he had his accident. Mikaela was shattered. Again. Why are the people I love disappearing? What else is going to happen?

Memories flooded her. She was a baby again, age two, her parents telling her if she went skiing with them, they'd give her french fries and hot chocolate. She kept showing up, hoping for more hot chocolate.

What if I lose my mom?

She and Eileen stopped in Munich for their connecting flight on their way home. Huddled at the terminal, Mikaela tucked her face into her mother's neck. They wondered how much pain Jeff had suffered, how scared he must have been to not have them there after his accident. What he was thinking of as he was drifting away from them. How strong Taylor had to have been to deal with it all without them. How powerless he must have felt.

Eileen had lost the person she fell in love with when they were young and working 100-hour weeks at a Boston hospital. Their first date, they went on a jog, and eventually, they started skiing together.  Jeff was completely hooked when he saw a sailboard for windsurfing in her apartment. Jeff was kind, always knowing what to say to comfort Eileen.

When he died, Mikaela lost her compass. No matter how famous she'd become, Jeff would always ask her if she wanted to keep skiing. Are you still enjoying yourself? Do you want to keep doing this? If not, it's OK if you stop right now.

She and her dad were so much alike. Both musically inclined (he was a classically trained pianist and played the violin and trumpet, while she plays guitar and sings). Intelligent. Assertive. Methodical. And if Mikaela's voice is Eileen's, her eyes are Jeff's: green hazel with eerily long eyelashes.

Those closest to Mikaela weren't sure if she'd ever race again.

She was devastated, taking a few weeks to herself, missing eight races. But she decided she wanted to rejoin the World Cup circuit in Germany in order to race on her dad's birthday, March 8.

She felt that would honor him. But it wasn't a race to her anymore. It wasn't about winning. It was about showing up.

Seeing who she really was.

Seeing what she was really made of.

Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press

She needed to prove to herself that she could do it. "That I could be a ski racer again," she says.

She felt racing on his birthday would distract her from the overwhelming feeling she is so accustomed to: that she has to win. "The burden, the pressure, of being a competitor, versus me just being out there as a human who is using this to provide a form of healing," she explains.

Facing the course for the first time again was calming. She felt close to her dad, being on the snow, the place he loved most. She felt guilty at first. Then grateful to have this escape. This thing she has loved since she was a child, back when her dad would ask her what she learned in school that day. "My ABCs," she would joke, and he'd make her sing them.

If I can just race again this season and face everything, seeing other athletes again, seeing the media again, showing my face, maybe I'll be OK.

So she mustered every bit of strength she could to train, to keep rising after any wave of grief set her down.

Then she found out the Germany races were canceled because there wasn't enough snow.

She wouldn't get to race on her dad's birthday.

She felt so disappointed, so let down. Then she berated herself for feeling that way.

There is a critic living inside Mikaela, constantly demanding she reach for a bar she can't ever touch because she is raising it every day.

Every race, every training, she inspects herself. She has to be this way. Because she is after something much deeper, much more difficult than dominance itself: sustaining dominance.

As weary as she felt, she wouldn't stop.

She headed to Åre, Sweden, to prepare for the last few races before the World Cup finals. Her coaches told her that if she flew there and decided she didn't want to compete, she didn't have to. They were just proud of her for getting on the plane.

But Mikaela had her mind made up: She was racing. "More than the results, or prize money," she says, "those races were going to be good for my actual heart."

She was terrified, though, standing on top of the hill, looking out at the snow. It was much, much faster than the dry snow back home in Colorado. Her mind drifted.

Why did this have to happen to such an incredible guy?

Nathan Bilow/Associated Press

Why couldn't he have been doing something else at that second?

Two questions bloomed into two more. Then three more. It was too emotional to train sometimes. She and Eileen would go for one of their runs. Then Mikaela would return to the course. Shut off the whys. The fears of the snow's speed.

She is used to shutting off fear as a ski racer. Pretending like it doesn't exist. Like it doesn't cross her mind every time that there is a chance that she could injure herself badly. Die.

Back at the gate, she stopped thinking about the what-ifs. The wins she had or didn't have. Her dad. Her mind went blank. She let her fear envelop her. She kicked out of the gate, leaving it all behind.

She flew.

Mikaela was proud of herself. She felt joy just being back. Feeling capable, excited. She felt ready for the races, which were to begin on a Thursday. But then Wednesday night, her coach received a text. All the races were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of her efforts to push past grief, suck in her pain, were in vain. "I just felt empty," Shiffrin says.

Competing again had given her a new sense of purpose. Hope. To not have that anymore was almost cruel. Everyone kept asking Mikaela: "How are you feeling?" There was no answer that could describe her letdown—what it felt like to give everything in her body, her soul, to return, only to be told, it's over.

"There was all this buildup," she says. "Those races felt like they were going to be above the Olympics, above the World Cup. The most important races of my career. Then they get canceled."

She tried to think of what her dad would say to her. He'd probably tell her that she needs to maintain perspective. That other athletes lost their seasons too. That there are bigger things in the world. She cried, this time happy tears, remembering his words.

Did you make any good turns?

Mikaela had made some good turns. She had proved that she could get back out there.

And even if repeating last year's success didn't matter as much as before, she also had still managed to finish the season as the top earner on the World Cup circuit among men and women, for the fourth straight year.

Looking out at the snow one last time before flying home, she felt empty and full. She was still standing.

Taylor knew that when Mikaela and Eileen got back to Colorado, they'd have to all be there for one another.

"You can't check out," he told Mikaela one afternoon, three days after she had returned from overseas. "It's going to take all of us three to get through this. We can't just do this with just two of us. Or alone."

Something in Mikaela shifted. She was going to be strong, and she was going to throw herself into the immediate business...of figuring out the family's taxes. They're complicated, given that her earnings are not just in dollars but in Swiss francs and euros. Jeff had always taken care of them in the past.

Mikaela spent 12, sometimes 15 hours a day, figuring out her various expenses and business ventures. She tried to distract herself from the disappointment of the season, watching the TV show Poldark with her family. Learning YouTube dances. Singing and playing the guitar (she's working to master "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses).

On a particularly hard day, Mikaela sensed her mom seemed down. Eileen sat at her desk and looked deflated—busy, as if she was trying to outwork her emotions. Eileen has held so much in, so long. "I'm still not out of shock," she says. She is still thinking of her mother's adorable giggle, her kind sense of humor. Sometimes she still goes to the phone to call her mother.

"You know what, Mom?" Mikaela said, snuggling up next to her and wrapping her arms around her in a giant bear hug. "You're doing amazing."

Eileen softened. Smiled. In that moment, daughter became mother and mother became daughter. Eileen let her protective instincts go. She needed to be taken care of too. She needed Mikaela to see that she was hurting too—that she was lost too. That sometimes even she doesn't have answers. That sometimes she just can't be Coach.

It felt good, leaning on her daughter. And, squeezing tightly, Mikaela didn't want to let her mom go. Then she looked at her mom. Really looked at her.

How lucky am I? Mikaela thought to herself. I'm loved.


Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

Top photos courtesy of U.S. Ski & Snowboard and Steven Earl Photography.