As Mikaela Shiffrin plans the next phase of her record-breaking skiing career, she looks, as she always has, to the example of another female megastar who has experienced similar highs and lows in her career: Taylor Swift.
American skier Shiffrin is the most successful and precocious alpine racer in history, having broken the record for World Cup wins for both women and men while she was still in her prime skiing years. American singer-songwriter Swift is the biggest pop star in the world, breaking music industry records one after another.
When Shiffrin made her debut on the World Cup circuit, she was about to turn 16, the same age Swift was when she began recording her debut album five years earlier. Both have been teenage sensations lavished with praise and benefits. While Swift, named Time magazine’s 2023 person of the year, might right now be the most famous human being on the planet, Shiffrin, celebrated at home, has bona fide rock star status in Europe, where ski racing is the national sport of several countries. . They are both on top of their respective mountains.
They have been innovators, history makers, and leading figures in their high-risk professions. But like many caught up in the maelstrom of pop culture, they have experienced intense, scathing criticism after any failure, real or perceived. Each of them has openly addressed the death or serious illness of a parent and taken long breaks from performing.
Shiffrin, a Swiftie since she was 13, like legions of other girls and women, sees herself in Swift and has come to recognize elemental parallels in their careers and lives. For perspective, Shiffrin, 28, turns to her idol.
In July, Shiffrin rented a suite for Swift’s Eras Tour concert in Denver, an event Shiffrin described as “three hours of jumping around while singing every song at the top of her lungs.” Within that experience, Shiffrin wondered if there was a lesson that would help shape the next “era” of her luminous career.
Did Swift, the now 34-year-old teenage prodigy, help point the way from one stage to another?
“Absolutely, because I’ve spent 15 years studying Taylor Swift and she’s been guiding me a little bit every step of the way,” Shiffrin said in a recent interview in Vermont, where she earned her 90th of 93 career wins at the World Cup. . “That’s why most Swifties become Swifties. It feels like her music speaks directly to you. Her experiences resonate; I have always tried to learn from them.”
Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, a former ski racer who is also one of her coaches, insisted that Swift had provided more multifaceted and sophisticated guidance than she might seem.
“Miki’s sport and career thrive on creativity,” Eileen wrote in an email last month, using Mikaela’s family nickname. She added that “every new Taylor Swift song, concert and video” is an inspiration and motivation for her daughter.
Eileen Shiffrin, who praised Swift’s “street smarts” and business acumen, continued: “She keeps Miki going like she does the whole world. And she stands her ground, as she should, and that is a great role model.”
As Mikaela Shiffrin, who never met Swift, recalled various chapters of her public journey (impressive career successes, untimely failures, the perils of fame, her father’s accidental death in 2020), Shiffrin easily identified the ways in which Swift had influenced their responses. to every situation.
That long-distance tutelage began when the talented Shiffrin, trained in the mountains of Colorado and at a venerable Vermont ski academy, won three World Cup races and a world championship gold medal as a high school senior. . A year later, in 2014, she became the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history, at age 18, and was thrust into an international sporting spotlight that seems to magnify with each season.
But since he was 13 and listening to Swift’s 2008 album, “Fearless,” on repeat, he said, he’s looked for clues about how to live like a celebrity.
“Of course, Taylor is a big fish in a big pond and I’m more of a big fish in a small pond,” Shiffrin said. “But you can see how she has handled the attention, because she was a teenager too. She was able to hold on and work on her music. And while she is very comfortable sharing much of her life, she creates a layer of protection when she needs it. She can disappear. That seems to give him energy.
“I accepted all that and assimilated it. Although it was difficult for me because I had to go from being an extremely introverted person to being comfortable with many cameras and microphones. “It’s kind of fun having to go through life quantifying yourself as an introvert but having to live it as an extrovert.”
After winning gold and silver medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Shiffrin won an unprecedented 17 races the following season. At the time, an Alpine season with five or six wins would have been considered prosperous. But at the start of the next season, Shiffrin did not match the astonishing pace he had set a year earlier.
“People started saying that I had lost my touch, that maybe I had peaked and my career was fading,” Shiffrin said with an exasperated look as she slumped back into an armchair. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, everyone says all these things about me like I’m never going to be a good skier again.’ “
Shiffrin recalled Swift’s “Reputation” album from a few years earlier and again saw parallels.
“That album was basically built on her reputation going incredibly downhill, or at least that’s how she perceived it with all the feuds that were going on at the time,” Shiffrin said. “But she came back in a big way. I identified with the album because she made me feel that life is full of ebbs and flows. And that everything is probably going to be fine.”
Shiffrin bounced back in January 2020, with successive victories. But about a week after the second of those restorative triumphs, on February 1, her older brother, Taylor, contacted her by phone in Europe to tell her that her father, Jeff Shiffrin, had been seriously injured in the her house in Colorado. Upon returning to Denver, Mikaela climbed into Jeff’s hospital bed for several hours, a vigil that ended with his death on February 2.
The family has refused to reveal details of what happened; A coroner ruled the death an accident and listed the cause as a head injury.
Shiffrin did not race for the next nine months.
In last month’s interview, without being prompted, Shiffrin recalled that Swift’s 2020 album, “Folklore,” came out five months after her father’s death and that it included “Epiphany.” Swift has said that the song explores the emotional anguish of healthcare workers at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and of soldiers at war, a correlation that pays tribute to one of Swift’s grandfathers, who was a battle-hardened US Marine in the World War. II.
Shiffrin played “Epiphany” over and over again.
“She literally tackled the most unpredictable, horrible experience I’ve ever gone through,” Shiffrin said of Swift, whose parents have both dealt with cancer. “It speaks directly to the experiences I had in the hospital with my dad.
“It was hard to listen to and heartbreaking, but also uplifting at the same time, which is something I really needed at the time.”
Shiffrin’s return to competition in the 2021-22 season included a series of triumphant results, as well as a shocking and demoralizing exit at the Beijing Olympics, where she did not win a medal. Since then, she has won 20 races, putting her on track for approximately 130 career wins if she were to race five more years. The previous record for World Cup victories, which she held for 34 years, was 86. She has won 14 world championship medals, one shy of her career-high.
But whatever the future holds for Shiffrin, she’s sure of two things. The first is that, given her level of sports fame, Shiffrin could probably set up a date with Taylor Swift, but she’s afraid to do so.
“I would probably trip and be speechless,” Shiffrin said, laughing. “And then it would be memorable for her because it’s the first time she’s experienced any kind of nonsense.”
The second certainty is that he will use Swift as a model to help define the next era of his career, regardless of how many alpine skiing records he accumulates.
“Taylor Swift has reset so many records and held so many titles in the music industry that they’ve had to create new ways to measure her success,” Shiffrin said. “And I’ve noticed that she keeps going.”
Does this help resolve Shiffrin’s central dilemma: what to do next?
“Well, there’s a whole universe inside Taylor Swift’s mind that we haven’t tapped into yet; maybe we’ve tapped into 1 percent of what she can accomplish through her music,” Shiffrin said. “And I think of my skiing in a similar way. Now I’m closer to reaching my potential, but it’s not about an album or another title.
“I’ve noticed that Taylor is moving forward. In a way, you never finish doing that work.”