On particularly stressful occasions, Mikaela Shiffrin can feel the anxiety build moments before her run. Her throat tightens, and her eyes water. Her suit feels way too tight, and her stomach churns.
As a teenager, the two-time defending overall World Cup champion never experienced this level of nervousness before a race.
Lately, that pressure has sometimes engulfed her.
It first struck two years ago at an event and she thought it was just the flu. The feeling has overtaken her during several more races, including the Olympic slalom at the Pyeongchang Games last February when she finished fourth.
This season, she’s trying something new after talking to a friend who doubles as a sports psychologist: Tune out expectations, enjoy the ride.
“If I’m thinking about whatever everybody is expecting, it ruins it and that’s silly,” the three-time Olympic medalist said in a phone interview ahead of the World Cup season-opening giant slalom race on Oct. 27 in Soelden, Austria. “I’m taking a minute to appreciate where I actually am in the sport.”
The 23-year-old from Avon, Colorado, is coming off a season in which she won 12 races on her way to a second straight overall title. She earned two medals in South Korea, including gold in the giant slalom and silver during the combined.
Recently, she got to meet tennis standout Roger Federer.
Now that was nerve-wracking.
“I was sweaty and my hands were clammy,” she laughed. “He’s so cool.”
For the upcoming season, she’s taking on another role — leader.
In years past, she hasn’t spent all that much time with the downhill team since she also had to fit in slalom and giant slalom training. But she recently attended a speed camp with the U.S. squad in Chile, joining the likes of Laurenne Ross, Alice Merryweather and for a brief time Lindsey Vonn, who begins this season five wins away from breaking Ingemar Stenmark’s record for most by a World Cup ski racer.
The group shared tips and tactics, something Shiffrin has been reluctant to do in the past because she didn’t view herself as a speed racer. That changed with a downhill win in Lake Louise, Alberta, last December.
No more basic course reports relayed up the mountain to teammates.
“I would call up and be like, ‘Everything is great. The sun is shining. The birds are chirping. Have a good time,’” Shiffrin said. “I didn’t want to say anything that could possibly be misinterpreted. Now I feel more comfortable with my speed knowledge and experience.”
Mention the Olympics and she audibly exhales.
At the Pyeongchang Games, Shiffrin was the favorite to win not one, but multiple medals. Especially in the slalom, which she captured at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
She embraced the pressure. Then, the weather played havoc with the Olympic schedule and led to changes.
Nerves crept in.
Shiffrin started things off strong by taking gold in the giant slalom. The next day was the slalom, her signature event. The anxiety struck and she threw up before her first run. In the second pass, she was too cautious and finished a spot off the podium in a race won by Frida Hansdotter of Sweden. Shiffrin had nothing left in the tank, not even emotions.
“I felt indifferent,” Shiffrin said. “That’s when I know I’m tired. That I need to get some rest. But rest was the one thing I knew I couldn’t get during the Olympics.”
She pulled out of the super-G and downhill events to conserve energy for the combined, where she earned a silver medal.
Two medals — a nice haul from South Korea. Two medals, though, wasn’t five.
“Everyone was talking about five medals, and I was always like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to say it’s completely out of the question,’” Shiffrin said. “But I wasn’t expecting to win five medals. I wasn’t expecting to win a single medal. Given what my true expectations and goals were for the Olympics, it was wildly successful.
“I come back home and people who don’t see ski racing on daily basis or a yearly basis see the Olympic articles, ‘Mikaela Shiffrin is a five-medal threat.’ For them, (two medals) was a disappointment. I let the country down somehow.”
That’s where her friend/sports psychologist came in handy.
“She knew me before I had nerves and knew my mentality and how I tick and how I’m driven,” Shiffrin said. “She can remind me of that. It’s been really, really helpful.”
Her mom, Eileen, will accompany her to races, but maybe not to all of them as in the past. Shiffrin doesn’t want to overburden her mom because of the racer’s frenetic schedule.
“She wasn’t in Chile the last two weeks and I missed her,” Shiffrin said. “I missed her as my friend and as my mom and I really missed her as one of my coaches.”
Over the summer, Shiffrin appeared on Maxim’s “Hot 100 ” list. Unlike other photos, Shiffrin was wearing a ski jacket — and donning her two medals from South Korea.
“I got to speak my own truth about what beauty is. It doesn’t have to be women in bikinis,” Shiffrin said. “Maybe society’s image of women and beauty is changing a little bit? Maybe it’s being a little bit more inclusive?”
As for the anxiety, she definitely feels she has a handle on it.
“I’m taking steps toward being happy with myself and not needing justification from another person,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t need someone else telling me, ‘Hey, you’re doing great’ in order to sleep at night. I can sleep just fine.
“I’m happy with myself. I love my family. I love my job. I love ski racing. Everything is just fine.”