Column: Shiffrin story speaks to the power of practice

The 2014 Winter Olympics officially came to a close this past week, but not before the United States, and the world, learned the name of a very unique 18-year-old.

Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest person ever to win a gold medal for slalom skiing. She is also the first American to win the event in 42 years.

I first learned of Shiffrin while watching a special edition of “60 Minutes Sports.” She was coming off a World Cup victory in Switzerland at just 17 years old.

What caught my attention about the young phenom wasn’t just her ability to fly down a mountain with incredible grace and ease, but rather the not-so-typical competing standards that she and her family chose to abide by.

Shiffrin’s parents, both accomplished skiers themselves, put the Olympian on her first pair of skis at age two.

It was clearly the right choice, as Mikaela would continue on for complete world domination, in skiing, obviously. However, unlike most world-class athletes, the Shiffrins felt it would be best to keep Mikaela away from competitions to better hone her skills. For them, the old saying, “practice makes perfect,” couldn’t ring more true.

I found this to be one of the most refreshing profiles of an Olympian and athlete to date. We constantly hear about the dedicated parents driving hours away and spending thousands of dollars to take their children to competitions in the hopes that they one day will be competing on the world’s greatest stage.

For an athlete, especially one of Shiffrin’s caliber, to be purposely kept out of competitions at a young age may seem to some like she was held back. She chose not to compete in events like the downhill and Super G, the same one that sidelined champion Lindsey Vonn, for fear of pushing the envelope.

The reason, she said, was simply that she didn’t feel ready. Just because she could do it didn’t mean she was set to go.

So less competitions, more practice time and staying out of an event you don't feel is beneficial for you? Seems like Shiffrin’s method worked out pretty well for her.

My admiration and enjoyment of watching Mikaela Shiffrin comes not from her record gold medal win but rather the methods she, and her family, practiced to get her to that final run.

We all too often see parents that push their children, sometimes to the point of breaking, to witness them compete and win. The line between supportive and victory-hungry can easily blur.

Mikaela Shiffrin’s balance of natural ability, proper training and familial support was in my opinion the reason she claimed gold. She never worried about the end result, but instead the journey that carried her across the finish line.

It didn’t matter which competition she wasn’t competing in, as long as she was fixing whatever would make her better in the one she was racing.

Perhaps Mikaela’s father put it best. It’s not about the trophy in the end he says but rather, “it’s about the dance with the hill.”

Do you see any trends in how parents are pushing children to become world-class athletes? Is there a right or wrong way to do this? Email Adee at asfeiner@wisc.edu and let her know what you think.

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