The best part of Mikaela Shiffrin becoming the winningest skier of all time is that she is the person who cares least about the accomplishment.
She is astounded by her 87 World Cup victories, of course, and humbled to be in the same company as Ingemar Stenmark, Lindsey Vonn and some of the other names below her on the list. She’s overwhelmed so many people, including athletes she admires from other sports, became invested in her pursuit of Stenmark’s decades-old record.
But the record doesn’t matter nearly as much as the work behind it. The number of wins pales in importance to what she did and how she felt right up until she crossed the finish line.
MORE:Mikaela Shiffrin makes history, breaks Lindsey Vonn’s record for skiing World Cup wins
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“When I was in the start gate, both runs, I was so hyped up to ski fast. I was just like, ‘I want to race this. Not for 87, just because I want to race this,'” Shiffrin said Saturday after winning her 87th World Cup race, a slalom in Are, Sweden.
“I’ve been talking this entire time about how I don’t like the emphasis on the numbers and I can’t really tell you what the number means because it was not my main priority or focus and … I was just like, I guess we’ll find out if I’ve been honest with myself this whole time,” she said. “To get 86 yesterday and come out there today and still race with the same nerves and anticipation, that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
We love sports for the possibilities they offer. The transcendent moments that produce championships and titles. The singular performances that make you marvel at what the human body and spirit can produce. Even a mere mortal’s satisfaction in knowing the hard work today can always be surpassed tomorrow.
But sports get tainted when we get too caught up in the end result, and we’ve seen too much of that darker side lately.
Alabama will play for the title in the SEC men’s basketball tournament Sunday because a coach put his team’s record above doing the right thing. Tiger Woods, enabled the better part of his life because of his otherworldly talent, continues to reveal himself as far less of a human being. The NFL repeatedly demeans women. FIFA turns a blind eye to human rights abuses so long as the check is big enough.
Shiffrin is the antidote to that. She recognizes victories are meant to be earned. She handles her failures with the same grace as her successes.
Above all, she does not mistake what she does for who she is.
Shiffrin has always been someone who has enjoyed the process more than the prizes. When she says she wants to be “the best,” she means her best. She will nitpick to death any flaw or deficiency until it is gone, and practice what she does well until it’s even better. She loves the grind of honing her craft, and relishes testing that training against the adrenaline and unpredictable conditions of a race.
The wins and the records are simply a byproduct of all that.
“The motivation has never been about this, about the record, about these numbers. It comes before that. It’s the turns I make before I win the race,” Shiffrin said. “That was the feeling I wanted to have, yesterday both runs and today both runs. That’s the most special thing I could feel, and it happens even before you cross the finish.”
That’s why the Beijing Olympics were so frustrating.
Not winning any medals – that was someone else’s disappointment. What was crushing for Shiffrin was not being able to carry over what she’d been doing in training. She could no longer trust her work and, worse, she didn’t know why or how to fix it.
The way she handled that, answering every question after every race, was a lesson in both character and perseverance.
But so, too, is the way she’s rebounded this season.
Shiffrin has been in a fishbowl these last few months as she got closer first to Vonn and then to Stenmark. Whenever she was asked about her pursuit of the all-time wins record, however, she’d talk of doing things the right way, of keeping her focus on her skiing.
Anything less would be both a disservice to herself and a disrespect to the record and all those who’ve played a part in it.
“It’s hard to win, whether it’s one time or it’s 87 times,” Shiffrin said. “Even today. I had nothing left to accomplish and I still had this feeling, this adrenaline, anticipation of what might happen. That’s what we do it for. That’s what we live for, that’s why we race.
“It’s hard to feel that and still make it happen. Whether it’s once or 87 times, it doesn’t matter,” she added. “It’s special to be part of it.”
It will be decades, if ever, before another skier gets close to Shiffrin’s record. Remarkable as that is, the even greater achievement is that she’s done it the right way, staying true to herself and reminding us what sports are really all about.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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