Before Mikaela Shiffrin even reached her teens, she was like so many small skiers, tugged by a Poma lift up a hill, idle time between runs for adjusting goggles and wiping noses. This was at Burke Mountain Academy, a Vermont school for young, elite ski racers, and Shiffrin was a star there by any measure, with a propensity for seeking the kind of perfect turns that — eventually, linked together, over and over — lead to race wins. She skipped no steps.
As she sat back and let the rope tug her up the hill, Shiffrin watched the other skiers slide down. Not aimlessly. Mindfully. This was not thumb-twiddling time. What is she doing wrong? What could be improved? Off the mountain, she watched video of World Cup skiers, looking not only at what they did right, but at what they could improve. And then, when she did turn the camera on herself, she did so with the harshest eye. Kids so often want reinforcement; Shiffrin, from the start, craved criticism.
She’s a teenager now, the best slalom skier in the world, but in the age of the selfie, Shiffrin wants to see the ugliest one. She wants to face the hard stuff — not to dwell on, but to grow from. Should she win a World Cup race, the video may sit unplayed for days. When she loses, though, she scrambles to watch the replay. “That makes her able to sleep at night,” said her mother, Eileen.
Which all helps put her in her current, enviable position: a solid favorite for a medal at the Sochi Olympics, the youngest American slalom world champion ever, a winner of seven World Cup races at age 18. Not far removed from that Poma lift, she is a face and personality who can slide in and replace the injured Lindsey Vonn at the forefront of U.S. skiing in large part because she embraces — with a full-on bear hug — not just the adrenaline rush of competing or winning, but the process, the stuff no one else sees.
“She’s working toward mastery,” said Kirk Dwyer, the headmaster at Burke. “You recognize that perfection is never attainable. You could work toward that, but if you achieved it, you’d probably switch and do something else.
“I liken it to a musical instrument or an art. I think skiing is Mikaela’s art. There’s always a higher level that she can work toward, and she understands that.”
Thus, Shiffrin could be one of Team USA’s best hopes — not only in Sochi, but in 2018 and beyond, a future face of the Winter Olympics emerging now. Already, as a teenager, she’s not so much saying, “Look at me!” but just as much, “Look at my sport, and look at what it takes.”
“You want to build somebody who’s actually a student of the sport, and a student of learning — being able to learn and be able to enjoy that part of it,” Shiffrin said. “Because that’s the most painful process: actually understanding what I’m supposed to be doing. Sometimes it’s so frustrating, but it’s become the best part for me, and that’s why I’m here right now: Because I actually enjoy the part that most people hate.”
The hard part. The ugly part.
Shiffrin’s path to this point appears simultaneously accidental and carefully planned. Eileen Shiffrin grew up in the hills of western Massachusetts in a family of skiers. Jeff Shiffrin skied in his college days at Dartmouth, back when the Ivy League school’s A-team sent most of its athletes to the Olympics. When they had children — Mikaela’s brother Taylor is two years older — it was, Eileen said, “a foregone conclusion” that they would ski. That they made their home in Vail, Colo., at the foot of some of the best terrain in the world, made it all the more natural.
“It would be how families who live on the water would do sailing: because it’s a family thing,” Eileen said. “It had nothing to do with the competition.”
But if Mikaela and Taylor, now a skier at the University of Denver, showed a liking for their family’s sport, then the Shiffrins were going to make sure they had every advantage. As best he can remember, Jeff Shiffrin, an anesthesiologist, read an article in the 1980s — in Scientific American, or something like that — about what it took to become a grandmaster in chess, the best in the world, territory occupied by only a handful of people. The specifics of chess meant little. What Jeff Shiffrin took away from it, and then built upon with more reading, was that “humans can go from incompetence to competence in pretty much anything in about 1,000 hours of reasonable effort,” he said.
Take that further. To get to, say, a professional level took about 10,000 hours. “And the grandmaster was 20,000 hours — nearly a lifetime of dedicated effort,” Shiffrin said.
So the Shiffrins’ philosophy grew from that: If you’re going to do something, put in the time to do it well. To hear the family tell it, this wasn’t some Draconian edict. Then and now, Mikaela said she embraced it.
“There’s a lot of science behind it,” she said late last year, sitting in a restaurant in Beaver Creek, Colo., not far from her home. “There’s research. It’s accessible to everybody. And it’s not just saying, ‘These champions are alien. They’re superheroes. They’re not from this world, and nobody’s going to get there unless you were born with the right DNA, the right genetics.’
“I don’t believe that. I believe that if you work hard, you put in the right hours and you’re not goofing off, you can build yourself into something.”
There is a discussion around Shiffrin, as she has vaulted to prominence not yet three full seasons into her World Cup career, about whether she regrets not having a “normal” teenage life — high school prom followed by college selection process followed by matriculation somewhere — as she gallivants around Europe, competing at her sport’s highest level. This is a question asked even as she racks up victories and shows, with two podium finishes in giant slalom, that she could be a multi-event threat, a la Vonn.
Normal, though, is relative. “There’s nothing holding her back,” said Roland Pfeifer, the U.S. ski team’s technical coach, and there’s not a coach or competitor who thinks she won’t someday compete for the World Cup all-around title, which Vonn has won four times.
“It’s not that she doesn’t want the normal,” Elieen Shiffrin said. “But you can’t do both. It’s not that she scoffs at a normal 18-year-old life. It’s just that she has this path. She’s chosen it. She’s embracing it. She’s loving it.”
For Shiffrin, normal has long been about maximizing what she can learn not just about her own performance, but how her sport works as a whole.
“People say, ‘Just go out and have fun,’ ” Jeff Shiffrin said. “Yeah, sure. It’s sort of like, that’s one of the key rules in life is enjoy it. But it’s pretty hard to enjoy many things — if not most — without a basic skill set. So the more skills, the better — and the more fun it can be.”
So on chairlifts, the family would break things down. How many hours could they really get on snow? Ten thousand? You’d be retired before you reached that number. So they dispersed the time over various activities. At the gym, imagine you were on skis. Watch video when you’re off the mountain.
The Shiffrins had a willing pupil who studied further. Mikaela has read, among other things, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which attempts to trace the origins of success, weighing environment with drive and motivation. Her father shared with her stories from all walks of life, from the music school in Berlin, where people tried to figure out what separated the first-chair violinists from the rest.
“They practiced the things they weren’t good at,” Jeff Shiffrin said. “It’s easy to just get too competent and get stuck there because that’s easy and it’s comfortable. The few people that are willing to push themselves past that limit can rise above, can keep moving forward.”
So Mikaela took that approach, developing a voracious appetite for training, often eschewing competition or free skiing for drills. “The more I trained, the more I liked to train,” she said.
Even as the family moved from Colorado to Lyme, N.H., when she was 8 and Taylor was 10, those traits developed. In New England, the Shiffrins refurbished an old house, played soccer in the back yard, went on family runs and bike rides, and continued to ski, with Eileen the teacher of Mikaela’s age group. Eventually, even as Jeff took a new job in Colorado, Mikaela felt more comfortable in New England, landing at Burke. So Eileen, a nurse, stayed in New England with her as she developed.
And that came swiftly. At 16, the choice wasn’t Colorado or Vermont. It was home or the World Cup circuit.
“I felt young,” Shiffrin said. “But I felt ready.”
When Mikaela was 10, she can remember riding with her father to a ski race, and asking the question: How old do I have to be before I can ski World Cup?
Jeff Shiffrin, by Mikaela’s telling, went through a litany of accomplishments that would precede such a debut. Get your license from the International Ski Federation. Finish strong in some NorAm events, a precursor to the top level. Blah blah blah.
“What I got out of it was that 15 was the youngest I would be able to race the World Cup,” Mikaela said. “And from that day, that was what I was going to do.”
As Mikaela excelled, the Shiffrin family faced complicated choices. By 2010, she had won gold medals against elite youth fields in Italy and Canada. The next year, she made her first two World Cup starts. Producing an Olympian might not have been the plan, but here one was, developing in front of them. The next step was the World Cup circuit — full time, at age 16. Given the specifics of the situation — Mikaela’s age, the demands of international travel, the close-knit nature of their family — the Shiffrins decided Mikaela should and would go, but only if Eileen went with her.
“We knew that it would rock everybody’s world,” Eileen Shiffrin said, “in a negative way.”
The easy read: Here comes an over-involved mother, with a background in the sport, ready to meddle with the entire U.S. Ski Team. Mikaela’s talent and potential, though, dictated that allowances be made. Eileen Shiffrin, then, is often on the training hill with her daughter. Before Mikaela secured her diploma from Burke last spring, they were study partners. And, because she knows her daughter well and has a background in the sport, Eileen would speak up at times, as mother and protector.
“When athletes’ parents are giving away their kids to the coaching staff, there’s always some testing going on,” said Alex Hoedlmoser, the U.S. Ski Team’s head women’s coach. “It is normal. They want to know how the people operate and if that’s going to be good for their kid or not. With Eileen being around all the time, it’s definitely something that from our part we also had to manage and agree to it — but we thought it’s going to be the best way to get the trust.”
Given the results — Mikaela won her first World Cup race at 17 last season, the first of four victories that year, and then the world championship — it has worked. But it doesn’t mean that Eileen Shiffrin is completely comfortable with her own role on the road.
“It just seems like a grave violation to have this nurse-mom around saying, ‘I really think this is what you need to do,’ ” Eileen said. “I had to learn to choose my battles. There are oftentimes things that I wanted to say that I didn’t say, and the occasional thing that would come out stirred the pot a little bit. It’s been an interesting evolution for all of us. And I have a level of confidence in Roland that’s awesome. I know he’s always going to make the right choice for Mikaela.”
Shiffrin’s peers see not only a formidable competitor but an unusually composed young woman.
“She not seems to be only 18,” said Maria Hoefl-Riesch, the German World Cup and Olympic champion. “She seems so much older from her body from her skiing and also from her personality. She’s mature.”
Still, Mikaela isn’t ready for her mother to leave the circuit. The two share an apartment in Austria during the season. Eileen’s job is to know where to pick up the rental car, to have the directions, to find the hotel. Mikaela’s job is to ski.
When Shiffrin completed the first of two runs in a World Cup slalom race in Flachau, Austria, earlier this month, leading the field by a wide margin, she received a text message from back in the United States. “GREAT first run,” the note from headmaster Dwyer read.
Shiffrin wrote back: “You haven’t ever given capitalized letters before!”
Praise has never been the motivator in Shiffrin’s development, and hasn’t really been necessary. Even as the results have become more extraordinary — and the day of the text exchange concluded with Shiffrin’s seventh career World Cup victory — the reaction to it has been, somehow, in stride. The plan might not have been to be in the Olympics at 18, but the entire operation — coaches and parents and family and friends — was prepared when it happened.
When Shiffrin won the world championship slalom last year in Schladming, Austria, the skiing-obsessed German and Austrian media turned to calling Shiffrin a “wunderkind,” such an easy choice for a 17-year-old champion.
“On the one hand, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m invincible,’ ” Shiffrin said. “But then again, others might hear, ‘I better give up because I’m not like that.’ It’s more important for everyone to think they have a chance if they work hard.”
This is how she views herself. That day, back in December in Beaver Creek, she had posted her first podium finish in a World Cup giant slalom.
But instead of celebrating, Mikaela Shiffrin, who had risen at 5 a.m. before accomplishing a career milestone that day, turned her attention to the video, both of herself and the winner, Sweden’s Jessica Lindell-Vikarby. And there she saw the slight bobbles that had cost her the top spot, the places to put down a marker, the areas to improve. She had work to do, and so much fun ahead.