Elite athletes like World Cup skier Mikaela Shiffrin, champion climber Kai Lightner, and ultrarunner Sabrina Stanley are used to letting their performance do the talking. But, as with so many of us, 2020 challenged them in new ways, pushing each out of their respective comfort zone. From taking a stand on social issues to having the courage to talk openly about stigmatized topics to believing in themselves in the face of skeptics, here’s how each found voice and purpose through adversity this year.
Mikaela Shiffrin: “You wanna unfollow? I’ll see you to the door.”
Last February, Mikaela Shiffrin was in Europe when she got the call: Her father had suffered an accident back home in Colorado and was clinging to life. Shiffrin flew home immediately, buying herself a few short hours to say an impossible goodbye. Jeff Shiffrin died on February 2, 2020, at the age of 65.
“My dad was my safety net, my rock,” says Shiffrin, who, at the age of 25, is already one of the most dominant American ski racers of all time. Still reeling, she tried to return to the women’s World Cup finale in Åre, Sweden, the following month, but the race was canceled due to COVID-19. While in lockdown at home in Colorado, Shiffrin spent months reflecting on the loss of her father, searching for a clear path forward.
That path came, surprisingly, in using her voice in a new way. She’d never spoken out publicly on a social issue before, but when protests over racial injustice erupted across the country, she knew that staying silent would only contribute to the systemic problems. So she spoke her piece, despite the dissenters who told her to stay in her lane. “There are some things that are a matter of right and wrong,” she says. To the trolls on social media, she wrote: “Wanna ‘Unfollow’? I’ll see you to the door.”
Now Shiffrin says she’s looking forward to standing in that starting gate again and finding purpose where she’s always found it: on her skis. “I used to think resiliency was synonymous with strength. But now I realize that part of being resilient is being able to get through the moments when you don’t feel strong.”
Kai Lightner: “It felt like my voice mattered and it made it a difference.”
After learning to climb at age six, Kai Lightner took competitive climbing by storm, earning 12 national championship titles in sport climbing and becoming the first American in 25 years to win a world title in lead climbing. But it hasn’t all been glory. Lightner, who was already one of the few Black kids in the gym, realized around age 12 that he was also one of the biggest. He began to obsess over food and take drastic measures to lose weight.
Lightner, now 21, recently opened up for the first time about his struggles with eating disorders (after publishing the post to his blog, he also shared his experience in an article for Outside). “It’s a taboo topic for male athletes, but it’s something that happens a lot in weight-to-strength-ratio sports,” Lightner says. “I felt like if I published my thoughts online it might resonate with others.” It did. People reached out en masse to share their experiences and to ask for help and resources.
A couple of months later, in the midst of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Lightner was compelled to speak up again. He noticed brands responding to racial injustice with statements and one-off actions and donations that didn’t seem in line with the enormity of the movement. “These companies had good intentions, but they didn’t know what organizations in their communities were already doing,” Lightner says. “I wanted to bridge that gap.”
So, in June, he started a nonprofit called Climbing for Change, which provides scholarship opportunities for underserved individuals and connects organizations for change with industry leaders. This fall, Lightner, who’s studying entrepreneurship at Babson College in Boston, got another chance to use his voice in a new way: he was able to vote for the first time in a presidential election. “It felt like my voice mattered and it made a difference,” he says.
Sabrina Stanley: “I owe it to myself to believe in myself.”
Coming into 2020, ultrarunner Sabrina Stanley was in the midst of a notable winning streak—she’d won the last 11 ultramarathons she entered. So when the pandemic canceled most races, she needed a new goal. A fastest known time (FKT) on Nolan’s 14, one of the country’s toughest mountain-running challenges, seemed a worthy objective. The route covers roughly 100 miles through largely off-trail terrain across 14 of Colorado’s highest peaks, with more than 40,000 feet in elevation gain.
On August 10, after months of scouting and training, Stanley set a new women’s record on the route by completing it in 51 hours, 15 minutes—eight hours faster than the previous record holder, Meghan Hicks. It was sweet relief, but it didn’t last long: less than a month later, Hicks returned to the route and broke the record again.
“Without races this year, this was my race, and second place didn’t feel good to me,” says Stanley. “I knew after the first time that I could have done it faster. So I wanted to try again.”
On October 3, Stanley ran Nolan’s 14 for a second time, finishing in 48 hours, 49 minutes, and beating the FKT by 1 hour, 43 minutes. It was a massive accomplishment, yet not everyone saw it that way. After news of her record broke, Stanley started to receive messages and comments online from people who criticized her for being arrogant and overly competitive.
“I felt like my drive was misinterpreted as something negative. I’ve been very out with how competitive I am,” says Stanley, who is one of six siblings and says she’s been hardwired to compete since she was a kid. So she made the decision to stick to her guns, ignore the naysayers, and focus on what mattered. She knows she’s not the only person who’s felt ambushed or misunderstood online. “Confide in the people who support you and understand your motives,” she says. “Keep doing what makes you happy.”
When races return, Stanley will be ready. She has her eye on trail-running ultramarathons like the UTMB in France and the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, as well as possible FKT attempts on routes like the Wonderland Trail in Washington and the Superior Trail in Minnesota. Until then, she’s going to keep winning in her own way.
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