Elite athletes like World Cup skier Mikaela Shiffrin, champion climber Kai Lightner and ultra runner Sabrina Stanley are used to their performance doing the talking. But like so many of us, 2020 challenged them in new ways and pushed everyone out of their respective comfort zones. From taking a stand on social issues to having the courage to speak openly about stigmatized issues to believing in yourself in the face of skeptics: this year everyone found a voice and purpose through adversity.
Mikaela Shiffrin: “Don’t you want to follow? See you at the door. “
Last February, Mikaela Shiffrin was in Europe when she received the call: her father had been involved in an accident at home in Colorado and was clinging to life. Shiffrin immediately flew home and bought himself a few quick hours, impossible to say goodbye. Jeff Shiffrin died on February 2, 2020 at the age of 65.
“My father 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. She was still swaying and tried to return to the final of the Women’s World Cup in Åre, Sweden, the following month. However, the race was canceled due to COVID-19. While locked up at home in Colorado, Shiffrin pondered the loss of her father for months, trying to find a clear way forward.
That path came surprisingly, using her voice in a new way. She had never spoken publicly on any social issue, but when protests against racial injustice erupted across the country, she knew that silence would only add to the systemic problems. So she spoke her piece, despite the dissenters who told her to stay on her track. “There are some things that are right and wrong,” she says. To the trolls on social media, she wrote: “Don’t you want to follow? See you at the door. “
Now Shiffrin says she is looking forward to standing in that starting gate again and finding a purpose where she has always found it: on her skis. “I used to think that resilience was synonymous with strength. But now I realize that part of resilience is getting through the moments when you don’t feel strong. “
(Photo: Javier Goldstein)
Kai Lightner: “It felt like my voice was important and it made a difference.”
After learning to climb at the age of six, Kai Lightner took competitive climbing by storm, won 12 national sport climbing titles, and became the first American in 25 years to win a world title in lead climbing. But it wasn’t all fame. Already one of the few black kids in the gym, Lightner realized at the age of 12 that he was also one of the tallest. He began to become obsessed with food and take drastic measures to lose weight.
Lightner, 21, recently shared his eating disorder issues for the first time (he also shared his experience in an article for Outside, after posting the post on his blog). “It’s a taboo subject for male athletes, but it happens a lot in weight-to-strength sports,” says Lightner. “I felt that if I published my thoughts online, it could resonate with others.” It did. People have gone to great lengths to share their experiences and ask for help and resources.
A few months later, amid the nationwide protests against Black Lives Matter, Lightner was forced to speak again. He noted that brands responded to racial injustices with statements, one-off promotions, and donations that seemed inconsistent with the size of the movement. “These companies had good intentions, but they didn’t know what organizations in their communities were already doing,” says Lightner. “I wanted to close this gap.”
So, in June, he started a nonprofit called Climbing for Change, which provides scholarships for the underserved and connects organizations for change with industry leaders. This fall, Lightner, who is studying entrepreneurship at Babson College, had another opportunity to use his voice in a new way: he could vote for the first time in a presidential election. “It felt like my voice was important and it made a difference,” he says.
(Photo: Rapha Weber)
Sabrina Stanley: “I owe it to myself to believe in myself.”
Ultra runner Sabrina Stanley was in the middle of a remarkable winning streak in 2020 – she’d won the last 11 ultra marathons she’d competed in. When the pandemic canceled most of the races, it needed a new destination. A fastest known time (FKT) on Nolan’s 14, one of the toughest mountain running challenges in the country, seemed like a worthy goal. The route stretches for approximately 100 miles through mostly remote terrain over 14 of Colorado’s tallest peaks, with an elevation gain of more than 40,000 feet.
On August 10th, after months of scouting and training, Stanley set a new women’s record on the track by completing it in 51 hours and 15 minutes – eight hours faster than previous record holder Meghan Hicks. It was a sweet relief, but it didn’t take long: less than a month later, Hicks got back on the route and broke the record again.
“Without a race this year, this was my race and second place didn’t feel good for me,” says Stanley. “I knew after the first time that I could have done it faster. So I wanted to try again. “
On October 3rd, Stanley Nolan’s 14 ran for the second time, ending in 48 hours and 49 minutes and beating the FKT by 1 hour and 43 minutes. It was a tremendous achievement, but not everyone saw it that way. After the news of her record broke, Stanley received messages and comments online from people criticizing her as arrogant and overly competitive.
“I had the feeling that my drive was being interpreted as something negative. I was really excited to see how competitive I was, ”says Stanley, one of six siblings, saying she has been hardwired to compete since childhood. So she made the decision to hold onto her guns, ignore the naysayers, and focus on the essentials. She knows she isn’t the only person who has felt mugged or misunderstood online. “Trust the people who support you and understand your motives,” she says. “Keep doing what makes you happy.”
When the races return, Stanley will be ready. She has an 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 will keep winning in her own way.
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