On a cold night in February five years ago, I ended up at a dinner in Beaver Creek, Colo., with Jeff Shiffrin, father of the otherworldly skier Mikaela Shiffrin.
Mikaela, then 19, was there too, and would soon be competing in the World Championships, but as often happened at these things, I ended up hanging around with Jeff. As middle-aged dads of daughters, we had a lot more in common than I did with Mikaela, who had the Olympic gold medal and the freakish athletic skills, and is decades younger.
There is an archetype of the hyperdriven parent behind great athletes and scholars, adults seemingly more obsessed with the glory and trappings of success than their children are. As far as I could tell, Jeff Shiffrin, a highly respected anesthesiologist who died of a head injury on Sunday at 65, was pretty close to the opposite of that, someone who appreciated other qualities his daughter possessed far more than what she could do on snow.
That night in Colorado, I told Jeff a story of how at a lunch a few months back, Mikaela, who had come to my New York office with a half dozen others, had been the only one to offer to help me carry the trays of sandwiches and salads. When lunch was over, the gold medalist started clearing everyone’s plates and throwing them in the garbage. Again, she was the only one doing this.
Jeff chuckled and took a sip of his drink. “Hearing stories like that about Mikaela is so much better than watching her win a gold medal,” he said.
In announcing the death of her father, Mikaela wrote of her family’s heartbreak, referring to him as “our mountains, our ocean, our sunrise, our heart, our soul.” Even as Jeff Shiffrin’s daughter became the best skier in the world, he still showed up to her races with a camera hanging from his neck, as if there were not 100 other lenses catching the action.
Any time a talent like Mikaela bursts onto the scene the immediate question is, “How did this happen?” Mikaela began winning national championships when she was 16 and World Cup races soon after.
Early in my conversations with the Shiffrin family, I got some pretty clear clues why.
Yes, she had great genes. Jeff skied at Dartmouth, and his wife, Eileen, was a masters level ski racer as well. During Mikaela’s childhood, the family lived in Colorado and New Hampshire and prioritized skiing, and Mikaela had attended Burke Mountain Academy, a Vermont prep school built around the sport.
There was also this: When Mikaela was a junior competitor and clearly one of the best skiers in her age group, Jeff and Eileen decided to have her race as seldom as possible. It was nothing more than a math problem, Jeff explained.
Why spend all those hours in a car on a weekend driving to a mountain for a competition so Mikaela could take a few runs and walk away with a blue ribbon when she could spend so much more time practicing or skiing with her family near her home? Getting really good was about maximizing the number of hours she could have her skis on the snow. It’s hard enough because a skier has to spend so much time riding up the mountain in a chair lift. Why make it worse by adding all that car time, just for another ribbon and the chance for the parents to pat themselves on the back and show off their wunderkind?
It was so simple and obvious — race less, ski more, give up the quick hit of glory for something lasting and meaningful and full of quality time. In raising Mikaela, the Shiffrins offered a welcome respite from so many other parents, of great athletes and not so great ones, for whom child-rearing becomes an endless series of trips to games and tournaments and competitions.
The night Mikaela won her gold medal at the Sochi Olympics, I ran into Jeff at a party at U.S.A. House, the social headquarters for the American team. Neither of us really wanted to be there. We were old, it was late and loud, speakers booming with music for a younger set. The Olympics were nearly over, and we were both pretty exhausted, but we both had an obligation to be there for the same reason. We had to keep an eye on his daughter, then an 18-year-old budding celebrity enduring all the pressures and pitfalls that come with that.
In fact, we didn’t. There wasn’t much danger of Mikaela Shiffrin doing anything that was going to make headlines. So when we drifted to a quieter spot to kibbitz, I mentioned that I was impressed with the gold medal but more taken with this thoughtful kid, self-conscious beyond her years, able to speak in long paragraphs rather than sound bites, unafraid to admit her fears and very aware of her good fortune.
“You have no idea how much that means,” he said. “This stuff,” he gestured to the seemingly glamorous event unfolding nearby and all the attention being heaped on his not-so-little superstar, “none of it matters.”