February 6, 2018 at 6:06 AM
The numbers are plain, and they lay out the case that’s as easy to argue as the sky is blue or rock beats scissors. Mikaela Shiffrin is the best female Alpine ski racer in the world. Not yet 23, she is on a pace that could leave her as the most decorated World Cup racer ever. She already owns one Olympic gold medal and is favored to win two more — with potential beyond that — as the PyeongChang Games begin. What are her limits?
Shiffrin’s ability and her accomplishments validate her confidence. Still, when she climbs into the start gate, she can be surprisingly vulnerable. She believes in herself, for sure, but she is the rare elite athlete who will tell you, quite flatly, that pressure can be palpable.
“I get so nervous; I was throwing up last year,” Shiffrin said. “It’s like, the races I’m supposed to win, I worry about what happens if I don’t. Who am I letting down? My family? The media? What’s the media going to say if I don’t win? I was listening, and I had never really listened to those things before.”
With her second Olympics about to open, this is Mikaela Shiffrin: capable of confidently executing her plan and winning by margins with which ski racing is unfamiliar but simultaneously batting the hamsters in her head. She is a transcendent talent who brandishes her gifts with extraordinary diligence and flat-out work. But she admits, sometimes with alarming candor, of occasionally having to visit “a dark place” to access her best performances.
“It’s definitely more pressure for me to repeat than to do something new for the first time,” she said.
Whatever the path through her mind, her best performances are stunning. This season on the World Cup circuit, Alpine skiing’s highest level of competition, she has won five of the seven slalom races that have been contested. In none of those victories has her nearest competitor come within three-quarters of a second of her time — a blink for most of us, enough time to run errands and do laundry in ski racing. Throw in her two victories in giant slalom, a surprising victory in a downhill and two more wins in “city event” head-to-head slalom competitions and she has 10 victories and 15 podium finishes in the 23 World Cup races she has entered this season.
And she worries about whom she’s letting down?
“I’ve been encouraging everybody to slow down and really appreciate what she’s doing right now,” said Mike Day, Shiffrin’s coach for the past two seasons. “On the same hand, we did not spend really much time at all soaking it in because we get straight back to work. She’s such a process-oriented athlete that literally, these wins are just part of the process, and these performances are just part of the process. As soon as they’re over, they’re over.”
Such an approach would be beneficial as PyeongChang approaches. After Shiffrin won eight of nine events from Dec. 19 through Jan. 9, she skidded. She enters her second Olympics with two seventh-place finishes (one downhill, one giant slalom) and three failures to finish (one each in super-G, giant slalom and slalom) in her past five events.
Four years ago, as she headed to Sochi, she was something of a curiosity — a precocious slalom specialist who had never appeared on such a stage. Now, just as people gaped at her triumphs — “She is very difficult to beat,” Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova said following Shiffrin’s first win of the season, in Killington, Vt. — her stumbles stand out.
“One of the differences now,” Shiffrin said in a lengthy interview before the season started, “is that I wasn’t dealing with any of that external pressure four years ago. Now I’ve started to notice it. I’m in a different phase of my life.”
Unwrapping the gift
Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin grew up skiing and put both their children — son Taylor and daughter Mikaela — on skis at early ages. Mikaela’s development, almost from the time she first got on the snow, was preternatural.
“She knew how to make the skis carve at a really young age, an age that others really couldn’t figure out how to get that done,” said Barbara Cochran, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist in slalom whose family still owns a Vermont ski hill where young Mikaela occasionally competed. “She just had a tremendous foundation of technique from the get-go.”
So once the Shiffrins recognized that, they did what they could to develop it. When they moved from Colorado to Lyme, N.H., then back to Colorado, the kids decided they felt comfortable attending Burke Mountain Academy, an elite high school for elite ski racers. By that point, Mikaela had become a student of her sport.
Day, who two years ago joined the U.S. Ski Team’s staff for a third stint specifically to work with Shiffrin, first encountered Shiffrin a decade ago in a slalom race for 12- to 14-year-olds at Sunday River in Maine. Shiffrin won the race by “something absurd, like 10 or 12 seconds,” remembered Day, who turned to a coaching friend and said, “She should be racing World Cup next year.”
“He thought I was joking,” Day said, “but I wasn’t.”
Ski coaches can see the elements of a finger-snap quick sport and slow them down in their minds. What Day saw in that early exposure was Shiffrin’s textbook stance and disciplined upper body that she combined with an ability — both innate and meticulously honed — to begin the shape of her turn above the gate, the poles around which slalom skiers must navigate. The instinct for most kids is to get to the gate and then turn around it, with most of the curve coming below the mark. Shiffrin’s technique was faster, anticipating the turn so that once she got below the gate, she was pointed to the next one.
“She was really the only kid I’ve ever seen that executed that way,” Day said. “It ends up being faster and safer. It’s a place where gravity works with you.”
By the winter of 2011-12, when she was 16, Shiffrin was skiing World Cup events regularly. Eileen, who served as her age group coach growing up, stayed on as a coach, travel companion — and mom. She remains to this day. That first season, Mikaela posted her first World Cup podium finish, third place in a slalom in Lienz, Austria. The next season, she took her first four World Cup victories and won the season-long slalom title. The following year brought five more World Cup victories and the Olympic gold in the mountains outside Sochi.
She was just 18. But this was a road-tested 18. In the final World Cup slalom race before the Sochi Games, held in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, Shiffrin made an error during the second run, lost all her speed and finished seventh.
“It was devastating for that day,” she said. But she carried the experience — and lesson — to Russia. In the Olympic slalom — which combines the times from two separate runs to determine a winner — Shiffrin skied fastest in the afternoon’s first run, best by nearly half a second. But during the second run, she encountered the same kind of misstep, one that almost sent her tumbling off course.
“But by then, I had that experience,” Shiffrin said. “I was able to make the exact same error and say, ‘This is not going to be a repeat.’ That’s how you change. That’s how you get better.”
'Often the favorites don't win'
Shiffrin’s only real rival for all-around skiing stardom at the moment is Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, winner of the past six World Cup overall titles on the men’s side. But Hirscher is 28. Shiffrin is more than six years younger.
No woman has won more World Cup ski races than Lindsey Vonn, the American who will appear in her fourth Olympics in PyeongChang. (Vonn missed Sochi because of an injury.) Of Vonn’s 81 World Cup victories, seven came before she turned 23.
Shiffrin, who will turn 23 in March, has 41. Only Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll won that many before she turned 23; Moser-Pröll finished with 62. The career record for either gender, which the 33-year-old Vonn continues to pursue, is Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 victories.
“The record won’t last long if she keeps at it,” said Tiger Shaw, the former Olympian who now serves as CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “Whether Ingemar holds it or Lindsey passes him and holds it, she’s coming. It’s amazing.”
Last year, she won the World Cup overall title, which combines points from all five disciplines, and she leads the standings by such a wide margin this season that she has all but clinched the title. (Her 671-point lead over next-best Wendy Holdener of Switzerland covers the gap between Holdener and American Jackie Wiles, who sits 40th.)
In December at Lake Louise, Canada, Shiffrin won her first downhill in just her fourth try, and she also has two third-place finishes in the sport’s fastest discipline. So, the thinking goes, she could be a medal threat in five Olympic events, should she attempt them: certainly slalom and giant slalom, definitely combined — which is one run each of downhill and slalom — perhaps super-G and downhill. There is a new, mix-gender team event that makes its debut at these Olympics, but Shiffrin’s team considers her doubtful for that. Her program, other than slalom and giant slalom, will be determined on a day-to-day basis depending on a variety of factors: energy level, health, conditions, etc.
But when she climbs into the starting gate Wednesday for the slalom — defending the one medal she now owns — she will be favored — and heavily, having won 19 of the 24 World Cup slaloms dating from February 2015.
“But that’s the thing about ski racing,” said Ted Ligety, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in giant slalom. “Often the favorites don’t win.”
Which is what Shiffrin wrestles with now. Her final two races before Korea were late last month in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. She took seventh in the giant slalom and was crushed.
“I was pretty heartbroken,” she told reporters the next day. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a race that hard. . . . I felt like the hill yesterday and the course really had a clear definition of what my limit is in GS. And that’s a hard thing to stare at straight in the face and say, ‘Welp, there’s the limit.’ ”
The next day, she led the slalom comfortably in the second run. And then she skied off course.
“I don’t expect to be able to ski everything perfectly every race at 22,” Shiffrin said. “But there’s definitely part of me that didn’t want to feel that.”
Back to work
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Shiffrin was still just starting her season when she finished second in a giant slalom in Killington. The result was satisfying, and she felt better about her process and her preparation that led to the result than she had at the season-opening races in Soelden, Austria. That morning, she had forsaken her old playlist — heavier on, say, Coldplay — for some raw Eminem, over and over and over.
“There’s a lot of swear words in there,” she said. “Made me feel a little uncomfortable.”
Finishing on the podium comes with obligations to chat with the media, and as Shiffrin sat in a cushioned chair and reviewed her performance and her mind-set, the late autumn light began to fade. Her team, led by Day and her mother, was ready for a few runs of slalom training just so Shiffrin could get the feel, the tempo, of the discipline she would race the next day.
Here is another challenge for Shiffrin as she prepares for PyeongChang. There is the mental gymnastics of making sure her confidence is in the right place — not so nervous that she’s throwing up but not feeling as if she will win with something less than her best. And there’s the physical preparation. Shiffrin’s instinct: more, more, more.
“She’s incredibly driven, so there are times when I definitely encourage her to slow down a little bit,” Day said. “And at this point, I would say I don’t often win on that.”
On her way out of the small lodge, Shiffrin signed a few autographs for volunteers and walked quickly down some steps onto a well-trodden surface where snow mixed with mud.
“I listen to more people, and I care what people are saying,” Shiffrin said. “The opinions of the other athletes, my competitors, that kind of stuff makes more of a difference to me now. I also feel this sort of moral obligation to show people who I am. I want to show them I’m a good person.”
Outside, a Vermont state trooper fell in lockstep behind her. The crowd was headed home. The light was fading. And Mikaela Shiffrin — sometimes filled with doubt, sometimes desperate to prove to people who she is, unquestionably the best female Alpine skier in the world — headed to the one place that could clear her head. She went back to work.
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