Each athlete measures success in different ways. For some it’s titles won or records broken. For others it’s longevity. For still others, it’s the number of times they lined up.
For Mikaela Shiffrin, it’s all of those. And none of those.
Which is why, as she begins yet another season following the two most tumultuous years of her life and career, Shiffrin knows she could retire tomorrow and be satisfied, while also knowing she is still hungry for more.
“When I was younger, it was a little bit vague. ‘Oh, I want to be the best in the world.’ Then you’re like, ‘Oh, OK. Well, I want to keep being the best in the world I guess,’ ” Shiffrin said on a conference call Thursday ahead of the first World Cup races this weekend in Soelden, Austria.
“That’s sort of it, I guess. How long can I continue to be a contender for the top spot on the podium in my career and in as many races as I can?” she asked. “It’s a little bit vague, but it leaves a lot of room to be ambitious. Almost to a fault.”
Shiffrin ended last season with her fourth overall title, tying her for second-most with Lindsey Vonn and leaving her two shy of Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record. It was an emphatic answer to all those who’d criticized her after her disappointing performance at the Beijing Olympics, where she left without a single medal after recording Did Not Finishes in three races
It also quieted her own doubts. Since the sudden and unexpected death of her father, Jeff, in February 2020, which was quickly followed by the upheaval of the COVID pandemic, Shiffrin had been trying to regain her groove.
In that last month of last season, she finally did. She was on the podium in four of her last eight races, including a win in the downhill at the World Cup finals. That gave Shiffrin 74 World Cup wins for her career, behind only Vonn (82) and Ingemar Stenmark (86).
Given that Shiffrin has had double-digit wins three times in her career, including a record 17 World Cup wins in 2018-19, she could potentially pass both this season.
“It would be an enormous accomplishment in my career and maybe one of the most meaningful accomplishments because it would have meant I was consistently at the top and successful throughout my entire career, throughout multiple generations of athletes. Despite injuries, despite some very traumatic experiences,” Shiffrin said.
“But let’s say, coming back to where we are now, I do not feel like I have to achieve that record in order to feel comfortable retiring. … To be honest, it could be tomorrow and I’m already comfortable with what I’ve accomplished,” she said.
“It’s two different concepts for me,” Shiffrin said. “If I were to break that record, that would be very, very meaningful. But it’s not the thing that I’m shooting to do in order to feel like I’ve accomplished everything I want.”
Shiffrin is one of the most introspective athletes there is, in any sport, as well as one of the most open. What makes the 27-year-old’s musings about retirement most interesting is not that she mentioned it but, paired with her earlier answer about goals, the insight it gave into how she views her career.
Though Shiffrin has never been driven by the considerable expectations on her, she has at times felt weighed down by them. The disappointment she felt in Beijing was magnified by the feeling that she’d let down so many others.
So to hear Shiffrin say, with confidence, that she could walk away now and be comfortable with her legacy seems like something of a shift. She doesn’t need to meet anyone else’s benchmarks and isn’t beholden to someone else’s idea of success.
For however much longer her career goes, the “Finding Nemo” fan will “just keep swimming.”
“The basis of what I want to try to do is to always try to push the sport,” Shiffrin said. “I feel like I’ve been able to do that for most of my career, or all of my career. If it gets to the point where I’m not able to continue to push, then it’s kind of pointless to keep doing it. At least at this capacity.
“That would really be my gauge for when can I retire or be done with ski racing.”
A vague plan, yes. But one that leaves Shiffrin plenty of room for ambition.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.