As Mikaela Shiffrin plans the next phase of her record-setting career as a skier, she is looking, as she always has, to the example of another female megastar who has experienced kindred highs and lows and highs in her career: Taylor Swift.
The American skier Shiffrin is the most successful, and precocious, Alpine racer in history, having smashed the mark for World Cup victories, by women and men, while still in her prime skiing years. The American singer-songwriter Swift is the world’s biggest pop star, smashing music industry records one after another.
When Shiffrin made her debut on the World Cup circuit, she was just shy of turning 16, the same age Swift was when she began recording her debut album five years earlier. They have both been teenage sensations lavished with praise and profit. While Swift, named Time magazine’s person of the year for 2023, might right now be the most famous human 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 at the top of their respective mountains.
They have been innovators, history-makers and leading figures in their high-wire professions. But like many caught in the pop culture maelstrom, they’ve experienced intense, barbed criticism after any failure, real or perceived. Each has openly dealt with a parent’s death or serious illness and each has taken lengthy breaks from performing.
A Swiftie since she was 13, Shiffrin, 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 up and down while singing every song at the top of my lungs.” Within that experience, Shiffrin pondered if there was a lesson that would help shape the next “era” of her own luminous career.
Had Swift, the teen prodigy who is now 34, helped point the way from one stage to another?
“Absolutely, because I’ve spent 15 years studying Taylor Swift and she has been guiding me a little bit every step of the way,” Shiffrin said in a recent interview in Vermont, where she claimed the 90th of her 93 career World Cup victories. “It’s why most Swifties become Swifties. It feels like her music is speaking directly to you. Her experiences resonate; I’ve 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 guidance that is more multifaceted and sophisticated than it might seem.
“Miki’s sport and career thrives on creativity,” Eileen wrote in an email this month, using Mikaela’s family nickname. She added that “every new Taylor Swift song, concert and video,” is an inspiration and motivation to her daughter.
Eileen Shiffrin, who praised Swift’s “street smarts” and business acumen, continued: “She keeps Miki ticking like she does the whole world. And she stands her ground, as she should, and that’s a great role model.”
As Mikaela Shiffrin, who has never met Swift, recalled various chapters of her public journey — stunning racing successes, ill-timed flops, the perils of fame, the accidental death of her father in 2020 — Shiffrin readily identified ways Swift had influenced her responses to each situation.
That long-distance tutelage began when the preternaturally gifted Shiffrin, nurtured in the Colorado mountains 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 18, and was thrust into an international sporting spotlight that has only seemed to magnify with each season.
But since her days as a 13-year-old listening to Swift’s 2008 album “Fearless” on repeat, she said, she has looked for clues on how to live as a celebrity.
“Granted, 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’s handled the attention, because she was a teenager too. She was able to hold up and work on her music. And while she’s very comfortable sharing a lot of her life, she builds a layer of protection when she needs it. She can disappear. That does seem to give her energy.
“I took all that in and kind of assimilated it. Although it was hard for me because I had to go from being an extreme introvert to being comfortable around a lot of cameras and microphones. It’s a bit funny having to go through life quantifying yourself as an introvert but having to live it in an extroverted way.”
After winning gold and silver medals at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Shiffrin won an unprecedented 17 races in the following season. At the time, a five- or six-win Alpine season would have been considered prosperous. But at the start of the next season, Shiffrin did not match the astonishing pace she had set a year earlier.
“People started to say that I’d lost my touch, that maybe I had peaked and my career was fading,” Shiffrin said with a look of exasperation as she slumped backward into a lounge chair. “I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, everybody’s saying all this stuff about me like I’m never going to be a good skier again.’ ”
Shiffrin was reminded of Swift’s “reputation” album from a few years earlier, and again saw parallels.
“That album was built of basically having her reputation go 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, big way. I related to the album because it made me feel like life is full of ebbs and flows. And that everything is probably going to be OK.”
Shiffrin rallied in January 2020, with successive victories. But roughly a week after the second of those restorative triumphs, on Feb. 1, her older brother, Taylor, reached her by phone in Europe to say that their father, Jeff Shiffrin, had been seriously hurt at home in Colorado. Returning to Denver, Mikaela climbed onto Jeff’s hospital bed for several hours, a vigil that ended with his death on Feb. 2.
The family has declined 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 this month’s interview, without prompting, 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 the song explores the emotional distress of health care workers at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and of soldiers at war, a correlation that pays homage to one of Swift’s grandfathers, who was a battle-hardened U.S. Marine in World War II.
Shiffrin played “Epiphany” over and over.
“She literally addressed the most unforeseeable and horrific experience I ever have gone through,” Shiffrin said of Swift, whose parents have each dealt with cancer. “It speaks directly to the experiences I had in the hospital with my dad.
“It was hard to listen to and heart-wrenching but also uplifting at the same time, which is something I really needed at that time.”
Shiffrin’s return to competition in the 2021-22 season included a string of triumphant results, as well as a shocking, demoralizing outing at the Beijing Olympics, where she did not win a medal. Since then she has won 20 races, which puts her on pace for roughly 130 career victories if she were to race five more years. The previous World Cup wins record, which stood for 34 years, was 86. She has won 14 world championship medals, one shy of the most in a career.
But whatever Shiffrin’s future holds, she is sure of two things. The first is that given her level of sporting fame, Shiffrin could likely arrange to meet Taylor Swift, but she is afraid to do so.
“I’d probably trip over myself and be so tongue-tied,” Shiffrin said, laughing. “And then it’d be memorable to her because it’s the first time she’s experienced, like, a goofball.”
The second certainty is that she will use Swift as a model to help define the next era of her career, regardless of how many Alpine skiing records she accumulates.
“Taylor Swift has reset so many records and held so many titles in the music industry that they have had to create new ways to measure her success,” Shiffrin said. “And I’ve noticed that she just keeps going.”
Does that help solve Shiffrin’s central dilemma: What to do next?
“Well, there’s an entire 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 because of her music,” Shiffrin said. “And I think about my skiing in a similar way. I’m closer now to reaching my potential, but it’s not about a record or another title.
“I’ve noticed Taylor just keeps going. In a way, you never finish doing that work.”