Mikaela Shiffrin, arguably the best female skier in competition today and likely to become the greatest female skier of all time, had a devastating Olympics. Yet I think that her performance in Beijing and afterward, in the face of disastrous defeat, has been far more impressive and will have far greater impact on both competitors and fans than if she had won a fistful of gold medals as expected.
As I’m writing this, it’s the final weekend of the NCAA Basketball March Madness, and I’m again reminded that the intense pressure placed on athletes, both amateur and professional, is far more than most young people can or should have to handle. Diehard fans honestly believe that they have an impact on the results of the day because they memorized the athletes’ statistics, shouted strategy suggestions at the TV and wore their lucky team socks. They take every victory as their own and every defeat as a personal affront. They often are fickle and cruel, especially in a world where it is all too easy to judge and attack using the anonymity of social media.
And 26-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin—much like Simone Biles at the Summer Olympics—had the weight of the world on her shoulders going into the Winter Olympics with all eyes expecting this skiing machine to add to her lengthy and impressive list of wins and potentially tie the world record for most Olympic medals by a female alpine skier. But instead, she crashed and burned in a very unlikely fashion for her. Mikaela absolutely dominates the skiing world—present and past—in slalom and giant slalom. Both these races require the competitors to ski around gates (poles with flags on them)—but Mikaela missed gates in both races, disqualifying her from the competition.
She had been nearly unstoppable in slalom and giant slalom since she entered the professional circuit at age 15. True, she has lost many races, but she virtually never misses gates…until Beijing.
In her first event in Beijing, the giant slalom, Mikaela went too hard into a turn, lost an edge and slid out. “I skied a couple of good turns and I skied one turn a bit wrong and I really paid the hardest consequence for that,” she said. It happens…to everyone but Mikaela. So it was even more shocking when a few days later and only five seconds into the slalom race she did it again—missed a gate and had to say good-bye to the competition.
Fans watched in horror and dismay as this beloved champion sat on the hillside by the course for 20 minutes, processing what had happened and preparing to face the media in search of explanations and opinions.
What happened? Was it the conditions?
Were you effected by the time change and being halfway around the world in China?
Were you missing your father, who died a few years ago?
Were you distracted by your new relationship with Norwegian Alpine skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde?
Were you suffering residual effects from your recent bout of COVID?
The truth was there were thousands of explanations…and none. A human made a human error. And I have no doubt, that she will spend the off-season dissecting all of those potential reasons and trying to purge those losses from her mind. But over those next few weeks, Mikaela showed to the outside world the absolute beauty of her humanity and grace.
Anyone can win…and anyone can lose. The measure of a champion is how you face adversity.
What does Mikaela do that is so great?
She doesn’t hide. After failure, it’s easy to hide and avoid talking to anyone, especially the press. While she was clearly very emotional and didn’t have any real answers, Mikaela took the time to speak to the press after her losses and share her thoughts with her social-media followers.
She wins gracefully and loses gracefully. Mikaela is one of the most respectful and gracious athletes…to everyone, including her competition. Whether she wins or loses, she always acknowledges those who she competed against and congratulates those who beat her. In spite of her pain, Mikaela’s social-media posts were filled with support and congratulations for others.
She doesn’t place blame. Many people who lose blame “them” and “it”—the weather conditions…the crowds…the refs…the lack of something…the excess of something…whatever it is. They quickly make excuses rather than taking responsibility for their results and taking the time to reflect. It’s especially tempting for celebrities with microphones in their faces to give an answer to all of those “adoring” fans. Mikaela didn’t blame…she reflected. In a very emotional interview as she came off the slalom course, Mikaela reflected on what she had done…the choices she had made. The commentator asked, “What are you still processing?” Her response: “Pretty much everything.”
She is always grateful. No matter what, Mikaela always thanks those who help her every day.
She suffers in silence rather than airing her emotional trauma. I had a field hockey coach in middle school, Mrs. Kelly, who used to tell us to “suffer in silence” when drills were hard. Complaining does nothing, especially when done publicly. Mikaela didn’t hide her pain, but she didn’t make drama of it. She honestly and simply shared her upset, using it as a teaching moment for her social-media followers and supporters. On Instagram, Mikaela shared: “Could blame it on a lot of things…and we’ll analyze it till the cows come home, but not today.”
She doesn’t quit. The giant slalom and slalom were the first two of five races Mikaela was to compete in. They also were the ones in which she had the highest chances of winning gold since the other speed races—the downhill and super G—were not her forte. She could have put her tail between her legs and dropped out of those races, but rather than shy away, Mikaela showed up at the starting gates and raced every race, including the final mixed team competition where she helped the US team take fourth place.
A few weeks after the Olympics, Mikaela demonstrated why she is who she is when she returned to the World Cup Tour and the podium in a super-G race in Switzerland followed by a third-place win in Sweden and winning her first downhill race in two years—once again, a race that she rarely competes in. She didn’t back down. She didn’t run away. She returned to competition and within weeks after the Olympics, won her fourth Overall World Cup Ski Title, beating the number-two person by almost 200 points.
We learn more lessons from failure than from success. Ask any business leader or athlete. It’s easy to applaud winners, especially those who always win. Mikaela’s performance in China taught much greater lessons than an expert doing the expected and winning again. She taught resilience, grace and humility, and she demonstrated the sweet taste of a hard-fought return.