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MERIBEL, France — Mikaela Shiffrin had more than just a gold medal hanging around her neck during the awards ceremony for her latest world championship title.
The American skier was also wearing a heart-shaped pendant containing two miniature photos of her late father, which she held open as photographers snapped away to capture the touching moment.
Jeff Shiffrin died at age 65 three years ago this month following an accident at the family home in Colorado.
He was an anesthesiologist who leaned on his background in clinical science to help Mikaela develop original training and workout methods. He taught her to focus and not distract herself while racing with so much as a self-admonishing yelp.
That advice certainly paid off over the past week when Shiffrin first endured a small protest by environmentalists who mistakenly thought she was using a helicopter for training, then had her personal team thrown into disarray two days before her giant slalom victory when her longtime coach, Mike Day, left suddenly when Shiffrin told him she wanted to change her staff at the end of the season.
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The split with Day was a surprise to everyone in the skiing community and left questions over whether Shiffrin could refocus in time for her next race.
“She just shows people that they can say whatever they want, but she will still deliver,” Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, Shiffrin’s boyfriend, said Friday.
“Everything that happens doesn’t stand in her way (and she handles) different and difficult situations. She’s unstoppable,” added Kilde, a standout Norwegian skier who has earned two medals of his own at worlds (both silver).
After a challenging stretch in major championships that included three unfinished races and no medals at last year’s Beijing Olympics followed by a straddled gate in the slalom portion of the combined to open worlds, Shiffrin is getting accustomed to being on the podium again.
The giant slalom victory on Thursday came eight days after Shiffrin earned silver in super-G.
“The toughest lessons are often the ones that stick with you and teach you the most,” U.S. women’s head coach Paul Kristofic said. “It was certainly not easy a year ago. But she’s doing a great job with it (now).”
Up next for Shiffrin is her best event, slalom, on Saturday.
“In a way the pressure is off and the most important thing for me is to try to enjoy the last event of this world championships and enjoy my skiing because it feels really quite good,” Shiffrin said.
After worlds, Shiffrin will take a short break before resuming her record-breaking World Cup season. She already eclipsed Lindsey Vonn’s women’s World Cup record of 82 wins last month and needs only one more to match Ingemar Stenmark’s overall mark of 86 victories.
Wins at the world championships don’t count toward World Cup totals.
No matter how many wins she ends up with, though, Shiffrin is not about to declare herself the greatest skier of all time — or rank herself among the greatest female athletes from all sports.
“That title is something meant for people to decide on their own and everybody gets to decide who their favorite athlete is. And for many people, it’s not me. And that’s OK,” Shiffrin said. “I’m trying to push the sport and push the limits and show my passion. … Some people will consider me the greatest. And some people don’t even consider me part of the conversation. I think both of those things are perfectly fine.”
After worlds, Shiffrin will sit down with her team to assess her coaching situation.
“We have a job to do here and then when the time comes, we’ll start talking about what we’re going to do going forward,” U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said.
Day led Shiffrin’s individual team within the U.S. squad.
Shiffrin’s personal team is also led by her mother, Eileen, who has coached the skier her entire life, and traveled the circuit with her virtually uninterrupted since Shiffrin made her World Cup debut 12 years ago when she was 15.
“Eileen taught her to ski, so that’s been her project for a lot of years,” Kristofic said. “And Eileen is fantastic. She knows Mikaela better than anybody and she knows ski racing really well. She has good eye for technique and tactics and has always engaged with us on all of those things. And we have a great working relationship with her and I actually value her quite a lot. And I know Mikaela does tremendously.”
Might Shiffrin want to engage with the rest of the U.S. team more often?
The U.S. women are on the rise, with Paula Moltzan finishing second behind Shiffrin in December for the American team’s first 1-2 finish in a women’s World Cup slalom in more than half a century.
It was probably not a coincidence that Shiffrin trained with Moltzan and the team before that race in Semmering, Austria.
Moltzan and Nina O’Brien, along with Tommy Ford and River Radamus, helped the United States win gold in the team event on Tuesday.
“They push me, especially Paula, in training, and Nina as well, and it’s such an incredible atmosphere. Everybody’s competitive,” Shiffrin said. “I absolutely want to be more with my teammates whenever I can be. Of course, the limiting factor is when I’m racing speed, then I’m not with them and when I’m racing tech then I’m not with the speed team but that’s basically the only limiting factor.”
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