Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, groomed from early age, hasn't forgotten her roots
LANESBOROUGH — Each time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin visits her "Nana" Pauline Condron in Lanesborough, she heads down to the basement and leaves a message of love on her chalkboard.
During her last visit to the Prospect Street family home in August, the Colorado native scribbled out "I love you Nana" in chalk, followed with a heart that she colored in.
That message remained on the board Tuesday when Shiffrin's family learned that her slalom race in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was postponed due to dangerous winds.
The 22-year-old is on a quest for five gold medals this year. She earned her first at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
"She just adores my mother," said Shiffrin's aunt, Anne-Marie Herrick. "Despite all of her travels, (Shiffrin) always makes time to come home and see mom."
Shiffrin spends most of the year training and competing around the world. Her mother and coach, Eileen Shiffrin, is always by her side. Condron, 96, who goes by Polly to friends and family and Nana to the grandchildren, also regularly pops in to say hello, whether it be over video chat when Shiffrin is abroad or in person when she's racing in Killington, Vt.
In her offseason, Shiffrin will take trips to visit her Nana in Lanesborough, splitting her time between the Prospect Street home and her Uncle Patrick "PJ" Condron's home on Pontoosuc Lake, where the Olympian likes to water ski.
Polly idolizes each one of her grandchildren, but she and Shiffrin have a special bond, said her aunt, Caroline Ryan.
When Shiffrin was born in March 1995, she had a hole in her heart, which required her to be on oxygen.
Polly flew to Vail, Colo., where the family was living, to help Shiffrin's parents take care of her and her older brother, Taylor, Ryan said.
Then, each year from from the time she was a baby into her teens, when the family traveled to Maui to water ski, Polly joined them.
"She was always with Mikaela for long periods of time," Ryan said. "Mikaela built this really strong relationship with her."
Polly is naturally supportive and regularly tells Shiffrin that, no matter what happens during a competition, she's a "wonderful" person," according to Ryan.
"My mother's a very positive person," Herrick said. "And very encouraging."
That's a quality that was passed down to Shiffrin, who her aunts describe as humble, down-to-earth, introspective and funny.
When other women do well in races, Shiffrin is proud of them and makes an effort to congratulate them. She always has liked to see girls succeed, Ryan said.
"She always praises them for her efforts," she said. "I don't think Mikaela has a vain bone in her body."
For Shiffrin, skiing is a family tradition.
Polly and her late husband, Joe, raised their four kids on skis, with their first runs being in a pasture dubbed "killer mountain," across from their home, before graduating to Mount Greylock Ski Club.
All four of them were captains of the ski club at Mount Greylock Regional High School, Ryan said. Shiffrin's father, Jeff, raced at Dartmouth College.
Shiffrin, too, was on skis at a young age, waddling around in her garage on plastic skis at 2 years old, Herrick said.
It was never her parents' vision to raise Shiffrin with the goal of being an Olympian, but from a young age, it was clear that she was headed somewhere.
"She loved to train." Ryan said. "She thought it was fun."
To this day, Shiffrin, who is playful around her family and touts an almost self-deprecating humor, lives her life with an "extreme focus" that few people have, Herrick said.
"I think a lot of people struggle with that," Herrick said. "She's an extremely hard worker."
Shiffrin made her World Cup debut March 11, 2011, in a giant slalom in the Czech Republic.
She won the slalom title at the U.S. National Championships in Colorado the next month, weeks after her 16th birthday, becoming the youngest American ski racer to hold the national Alpine title.
At Sochi, Russia, in 2014, she became became the youngest woman in U.S. history to win a World Championship and the youngest athlete in history, male or female, to win an Olympic slalom gold medal.
She was 18.
But since taking home the gold, Shiffrin has felt an increased pressure to serve her fans, Herrick said.
While Shiffrin hasn't verbalized that pressure to her aunts, they can see it in her.
"She recently started to feel nerves that she never felt," Herrick said. "She doesn't want to let her family down, and she doesn't want to let the people rooting for her down."
A Winter Olympics commercial that debuted during the Super Bowl illustrates a defining moment in Shiffrin's life.
As a young girl, Alpine skier Heidi Voelker, whom Shiffrin idolized, signed her helmet in Killington and told her to "always be faster than the boys."
To this day, that's a motto she lives by and passes along to other young girls on skis, Ryan said.
"Mikaela has always remembered that," Ryan said.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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