For Mikaela Shiffrin, the hardest part of being alone comes at night.
It is after the sun has gone down that the double Olympic champion, already regarded as one of the greatest alpine skiers in history despite being just 25 years old, begins to think about her father. The mind whirs and sadness creeps in.
The coronavirus pandemic means most of humanity is struggling with being isolated or restricted, but for Shiffrin there’s an added hardship.
On February 2, her father Jeff died suddenly from an accident while at home in Colorado. He was 65.
Competing on the other side of the world at the time, the devastated skier rushed home with her mother Eileen and brother Taylor to be by his side.
“Right before we go to bed, at least for me, that’s when my mind just starts to … I lose the focus,” Shiffrin told CNN Sport.
“It just starts to go to any memories I’ve had with him, the most recent memories, you know, just everything. That’s when it’s probably the hardest, or the most sad.”
With tears in her eyes, Shiffrin added: “I was really grateful that we got a chance to see him in those final moments … He didn’t look like himself but … I could still feel him.”
‘We feel closer to him here’
It is a given in the skiing world that few families are as tight as the Shiffrins. During the season, her mother is frequently seen alongside Shiffrin, a five-time world champion, on the race hill. Her father would join the media in the finish area, trying to capture the best picture of his daughter crossing the finish line. Another medal in tow, another memory for the family album.
On a video call in the front room of her home in Colorado with a sprawling backdrop of the Rockie Mountains in view, Shiffrin said that after the pain of previous months, being home was important.
“My dad spent a lot of time at this house and [was] part of the reason that I actually ended up buying this house,” Shiffrin said. “He had seen it on the market and had come to check it out before I even knew about it. And he said, ‘you really need to check out this place.’
“We kind of walked out onto the deck area together and he said, ‘look at this view and can’t you imagine it?’ And I was thinking, yeah, I really can.
“We feel closer to him here. And we have pictures of him up all over the house. I took small pictures we had [of] him just throughout the years and blew them up and put them up on the wall.”
This is one of the hardest periods of the American star’s life. But, in a world where everyone is struggling, it has made her appreciate what she had, and still has.
“There’s a lot of people right now who are going through that losing period,” she said. “So I kept thinking, just thank goodness I have my mom and brother. They’re still here.”
‘My dad loved skiing’
After abandoning the season and her chances of a fourth-straight overall title in February, Shiffrin attempted to make a comeback for the final race of the season in Are, Sweden, only for the event to be canceled on the eve of the first day of competition due to coronavirus. But neither competing nor winning really mattered to her.
“I might have been the only athlete on the World Cup circuit who was just as grateful for just being there even without the race happening. In a lot of senses, it was just as successful,” she said.
“Skiing is something that my entire family shares. And my dad, he loved skiing, he loved it … I found being on the mountains was like being close to him.”
Having not competed for three months, her longest absence from ski racing in her career, Shiffrin said that for the first time since her father’s death she is beginning to imagine how it might feel to be back in the start-gate.
“I guess you could say that my motivation in a lot of ways is sort of increasing. I’m waiting for Sölden next year for the first race of the season to say, ‘here we go, this is where I want to be. This is where my dad wanted me to be.’ I’m looking forward to it … once I have all of this other stuff figured out,” she said.
“I used to think I’m pretty good at keeping perspective on what’s important. But I think that’s changed now. And hopefully I’m just never going to take anything for granted ever again.”