Shiffrin Swiatek Jan Split V3

FROM: @iga.swiatek

TO: @mikaelashiffrin

This whole Olympic experience and stuff is pretty crazy. So now I understand it more. R E S P E C T for everything that you achieved and how you did that.

Iga Swiatek was born with Olympic DNA. Her father Tomasz rowed in the quadruple sculls at the 1988 Summer Games, finishing seventh. The 20-year-old’s dream of qualifying for her own Olympic team came to fruition when she represented Poland at the Tokyo Games in July 2021. She went as far to tell the ITF in an interview that bringing home a medal would “probably be the highlight of my career” before the tournament started.

Swiatek discovered how inimitable the Olympic competition setting is—a sensation that can only be absorbed by experiencing it firsthand—and the challenge of not being overwhelmed by the occasion. Her podium ambitions didn’t pan out, but the 2020 Roland Garros champion gained a profound admiration for the performances of one very special athlete, two-time Winter Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, and later sent the aforementioned—and heartfelt—direct message.

“She’s just a role model for me, because I know for sure that it wasn’t easy for her from the beginning. She must have learned her lessons,” Swiatek expressed during our Zoom interview last fall. “Basically, I wanted to tell Mikaela I really respect her because, after Tokyo, I finally understood how hard it is to compete well at the Olympics, an event which is only once every four years.”

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Swiatek finished inside the year-end Top 10 for the first time in 2021 thanks to a 36–15 record and two titles. “I would love to be more efficient and more chilled out, just remember that tennis is not everything, kind of have more distance to everything,” she told press after closing out her season with a round-robin win at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara. “Just trust myself a little bit more.”

Swiatek finished inside the year-end Top 10 for the first time in 2021 thanks to a 36–15 record and two titles. “I would love to be more efficient and more chilled out, just remember that tennis is not everything, kind of have more distance to everything,” she told press after closing out her season with a round-robin win at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara. “Just trust myself a little bit more.”

Swiatek and Shiffrin have never met in person, but that hasn’t stopped the two champions from forging a friendship from afar during the pandemic—understandable given the common ground the pair of self-described introverts share.

For starters, Shiffrin began hitting tennis balls when she was in diapers. As the Vail, Colo. native recalls, mom Eileen often headed to the local facilities and, during a time long before booking partners over an app was at her fingertips, would patiently wait for any sparring player to show up.

Today, the mother-daughter duo still enjoys sharing the court together, just one example of how Shiffrin has maintained—and strengthened—her connection to tennis despite a regimented training program.

“One thing I requested from my coach was to include some tennis sessions whenever he saw fit, so I play as often as possible with mom. I enjoy the way it works my quickness and agility, also my focus to be able to move around the court and still have precision hitting the ball,” Shiffrin explained to me this past October. “That is probably the most challenging thing for me, but also the most satisfying—getting through a tough rally knowing that you didn’t sacrifice power or precision of your stroke because of fatigue.

“We also love to watch [tennis]. It’s such an exciting and athletic sport and we love to see the different styles and how modern technique has shifted over the years.”

Meticulous technique goes a long way in any athletic arena, and Shiffrin and Swiatek are both exceptional in that department. In October 2021, Shiffrin became just the third alpine skier to reach 70 World Cup wins by clinching her season opener in the giant slalom. If there is a how-to book on mastering tight turns, its Pulitzer-winning author is Shiffrin. Among her numerous athletic qualities, this is the one Shiffrin identifies as a link to Swiatek’s renowned topspin groundstrokes.

“The way you hit the apex of a turn can really relate to hitting the ball with the ‘sweet spot’ on your racquet,” she says. “Both lead to acceleration and power.”

Those abilities were on full display when Swiatek ran the table to win her first tour-level title at Roland Garros. Ranked 54th, the teen didn’t lose any more than four games in a single set during the fortnight. While her 2021 season didn’t yield a second piece of Grand Slam hardware, the Pole’s progression was notable elsewhere. Swiatek was the only WTA player to reach the second week at all four majors; her two titles included a 6–0, 6–0 demolition of Karolina Pliskova in the Rome final; and she added two first-time breakthroughs—a Top 5 ranking and WTA Finals qualification.

In April 2021, Shiffrin and Swiatek connected for an Instagram Live conversation discussing everything from the grind of traveling and managing pressure to finding happiness. The chat happened not long after the WTA star told Tennis Channel, “it would be a dream come true” if she were friends with the two-time Olympic champion. That’s now a reality.

In April 2021, Shiffrin and Swiatek connected for an Instagram Live conversation discussing everything from the grind of traveling and managing pressure to finding happiness. The chat happened not long after the WTA star told Tennis Channel, “it would be a dream come true” if she were friends with the two-time Olympic champion. That’s now a reality.

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The highs and lows of a season paint a larger picture of a tennis player feeling out the ebbs and flows of a single opponent, a situation that is tailored to Swiatek’s character.

“I think I was made to be a tennis player because it’s easier for me to go on and off in a match and to also have breaks from that focus,” Swiatek says. “In [Mikaela’s] sport, a little mistake can cost a lot. The thing that I’ve been talking to Mikaela about for a long time is being mentally in the right place and developing in that way.

“She seems like nobody could stop her. That’s really powerful.”

At just 16, Shiffrin made her first World Cup podium. At 17, she won her first World Cup and World Championship gold medals. At 18, she became the youngest skier to win the slalom in Olympic history at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Great victories, of course, beget greater expectations. Though she initially struggled with performance anxiety, Shiffrin became empowered to take stock in the one controllable she can manage: doing her best work each day. In 2017, she won her first of three consecutive World Cup titles. A year later, she added two more Olympic medals to her collection, including gold in giant slalom. In 2019, she smashed a 30-year record of 14 World Cup wins in a single season, posting 17.

If there is one indispensable piece of wisdom Shiffrin has acquired through her journey and would impart on Swiatek, it’s this: fulfillment is not defined by successes, for she will accomplish many things—but not everything.

“Every single person, every athlete, every major champion, every Alpine World Cup winner or Olympic medalist has doubts. ‘Will I ever get there again? Can I win again? Was it real?’ I have those thoughts on a daily basis,” reveals Shiffrin. “Sometimes [Iga] will feel the weight of those expectations, as if someone is putting actual pressure on her shoulders and pushing down, down, down; other times she won’t feel that at all.

“But no matter what she feels at any given moment, Iga always has the ability to play incredible tennis. That doesn’t go away—sometimes it feels harder to achieve, but it is always there. Let her achievements make her excited, and let her more difficult days make her disappointed, but do not let either of those things decide her happiness.”

Shiffrin met her tennis idol Roger Federer in September 2018, but her list of tour favorites doesn’t stop with the Swiss legend or Swiatek. Based on the accounts she follows and interacts with on Instagram—which includes Federer’s fellow Big Three members Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—it’s fair to say Shiffrin is as legit as any other ardent tennis fan.

Shiffrin met her tennis idol Roger Federer in September 2018, but her list of tour favorites doesn’t stop with the Swiss legend or Swiatek. Based on the accounts she follows and interacts with on Instagram—which includes Federer’s fellow Big Three members Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—it’s fair to say Shiffrin is as legit as any other ardent tennis fan.

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The insightful Shiffrin has plenty of glowing commentary to dole out to her new friend. Their specialties each rely on remarkable physical and mental balance, and it’s the American’s opinion that both forms are assets Swiatek carries in her toolbox.

Mesmerized by the fluidity of her friend’s movement that make demanding transitions look effortless, the 26-year-old is also impressed with how Swiatek uses intellect to maximize her potential.

“I really like where her head seems to be, the way she describes her feelings in tennis and how she shoots to use her mind—where she chooses to put her focus. To me, it feels healthy,” says Shiffrin. “For instance, being able to recognize the accomplishment of her WTA ranking without placing focus on that is really cool. I can really relate with that approach.”

Swiatek considers Shiffrin to be an exemplary model of handling the spotlight with grace, professionalism and sincerity, and her example has rubbed off in more ways than one. After her third-round win at Indian Wells last fall, which occurred on World Mental Health Day, Swiatek announced she would donate $50,000 of her prize money to a mental health non-profit.

Following the 2018 Olympics, Shiffrin supported the #MyYoungerSelf campaign for The Child Mind Institute. In 2020, she addressed the subject of mental health as the virtual keynote speaker for the He(art) of Vail Valley’s Youth event hosted by Mountain Youth and became a ‘Champion’ for Kindness Wins, a non-profit founded by 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys. That summer, she also joined actor Patrick Dempsey for an IG Live to further amplify the mental health conversation and discussed the loss of her father, who unexpectedly passed away in February 2020. With her mom and brother Taylor, the family launched the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund to ensure U.S. Ski & Snowboard athletes had a source of sustainable funding amid the pandemic’s uneasy unknown.

“I think she’s that kind of person who is open-minded. I really like the way she talks about mental health and wants to educate people. And that she is working to help others,” says Swiatek, who brought on sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz to her team in 2019. “She is going to leave a great legacy behind her. Not only because of her results, but also the way she’s doing these things.”

Reminiscing, Swiatek confesses she hasn’t been skiing since turning professional. She’s curious to pick Shiffrin’s brain about growing comfortable with racing at upwards of 80 m.p.h. in the downhill event. While a return to the slopes would be welcomed by Swiatek, her priority is working with Shiffrin’s schedule to make an in-person rendezvous happen this year.

“I invited her to some tournaments. We’re going to find time to actually meet properly,” she says.

The FIS Alpine World Cup season runs through late March, and Shiffrin is due to suit up for her third Olympics in February when Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Games. With an abundance of tournaments during the European clay and grass swings, and Shiffrin’s strong ties to the continent, could their long-awaited meeting happen at the site of Swiatek’s greatest triumph?

Whether it’s in Paris, a U.S. event or elsewhere, count on Shiffrin trading in her skis for a personal lesson from Swiatek when the moment arrives.

“I’d definitely pay close attention to her serve, specifically her toss. I’m all over the place, partially because my toss is sooooooo inconsistent,” admits Shiffrin.

“But I’d also watch how she finds space and time even while she is playing a point. How when she is playing her best, even if she is hustling, she never seems ‘rushed.’ That anticipation of what is about to happen while being totally consumed with the current moment is a crucial skill. We can’t practice it enough.”

Spoken like a true champion in one sport—and a student who R E S P E C T S another.