Champion Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin is opening up about the intense pressure she faced before and after the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
In a new interview for Elle magazine, the skier details the emotional turmoil she experienced after being disqualified from three Olympic races. Those losses, she explained, were due to a severe emotional burnout tied to the recent death of her father, a debilitating back injury, a positive COVID-19 test and added pressure from the public to be perfect.
“No matter how much success I’ve had in my career, it was like a constant battle of trying to prove my worth,” she said of the performance anxiety she experienced leading up to the 2022 Winter Olympics, where she made headlines after stumbling in the slalom, her signature event.
“I would be nervous, and then I’d get more and more and more nervous until I had to puke,” she explained of the mounting pressure she faced. “I was essentially having panic attacks.”
“Everybody experiences the hard days when it’s difficult to keep a positive attitude, and you just kind of need to sit down and cry," she added. "Except, for me, it all became a very public thing."
Though she confided in a sports psychologist, it didn’t seem to heal deeper emotional wounds. “On the days when I feel like I’m not ... living up to expectations, whether it’s outside expectations or my own ... it’s kind of like, Why am I doing this?” Shiffrin remembers feeling. “Because even though I’m obviously good, I didn’t feel like I was very good, and that really twists and messes with your mind.”
After picking up her second and third Olympic medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Games, Shiffrin said she felt “a wave of exhaustion” and was “just kind of depleted” due to the stress. Those feelings were exacerbated following the death of her father in February 2020 and being diagnosed with COVID soon after — all of which led her to doubt her own self-worth.
“When your priorities get set so much straighter from an accident or a tragedy like that, you start to wonder, ‘Why was racing ever important to me to begin with?’” she said. “It became hard for me to separate who I am as a person, or even my self-worth, from my races and my performances.”
Following her losses in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the athlete penned an essay in which she apologized to fans for her performance, while also opening up about the grief she’d been experiencing from losing her dad. In hindsight, she said being honest with her fans was quite healing for her.
“My best moment at the Olympics ended up being me just trying to communicate what was actually going through my head and hoping that somebody out there might be reading it and thinking, ‘That’s how I feel today,'" she explained. "Like, I felt completely hopeless and that’s something that a lot of people deal with. So why not try to relate to that on some level?”
“You want to run away and you want to hide from those difficult moments, but they’re there no matter what," she continued. "I knew I needed to face this, and I could either choose to do it in shame or I could choose to stand up straight and, I don’t know, bare my soul.”
Several athletes — including Osaka and Biles — lent their support to Shiffrin after her traumatic Olympic losses. Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters even urged media professionals to reframe the way we talk about "failure" in sports.
Dear, media & journalists, can we please stop saying “ so-&-so failed to do…” It’s NOT Failure, it’s called racing. Athletes are human. There are good and bad races, sometimes mistakes happen. That’s NOT called “failure”. Let’s reframe the way we talk about athletes. Thank you💜
— Oksana Masters (@OksanaMasters) February 9, 2022
Shiffrin isn't the only woman to be openly vulnerable about her experience with performance anxiety as an athlete. Tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open in 2021, and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from events in the 2020 Summer Olympics, have both spoken out about prioritizing their mental wellbeing.
When speaking on the issue with Elle, Osaka, who is working with wellness platform Modern Health to improve access to evidence-based mental-health care, explained that "more than ever, athletes are speaking up without shame or stigma, and rather than being looked at as weak, they are being regarded as human. This needs to become the standard rather than the exception.”
While Shiffrin plans on returning next ski season, the athlete makes it clear that this time around she's choosing to prioritize herself first. “There’s a lot of talk about the pressures athletes feel before a competition, and that ends up being why it doesn’t go well." Shiffrin added, "For me, it didn’t go well first, and then I felt the pressure, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment of knowing I couldn’t go back and change it."
Still, she added, “Sometimes, the simple act of trying is all you can do."
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