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Nearing history, Mikaela Shiffrin is still pursuing perfection

Mikaela Shiffrin is six World Cup victories away from Lindsey Vonn's women's record of 82 and 10 from Ingemar Stenmark's overall mark of 86. (Alessandro Trovati/AP)
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The trek from the mountain in Levi, Finland — where Mikaela Shiffrin opened the World Cup Alpine season by winning the first two races, adding trophies to a pile that has no limits — consisted of a race back to the hotel with 45 minutes to pack, a drive to nearby Kittila for a flight to Helsinki for a stay at an airport hotel to sleep before a 4 a.m. alarm for a 6:30 a.m. flight to Frankfurt, Germany, to catch another plane to Boston, where she could gather her bags, rent a car and drive the three hours to Killington, Vt., arriving around 8 p.m.

There is fatigue, of course. There is so much more.

“After a race, for me, I’m so wired, I can’t even sleep,” she said. “I’m just totally like, ‘Aaaayaah!’ Especially after the way this season started, it was so spectacular, I just couldn’t turn my brain off.”

Which assumes Shiffrin’s brain has an off switch at all. There’s scant evidence of that. Those two slalom victories in Finland were the 75th and 76th World Cup wins of a career that has few peers. Lindsey Vonn holds the women’s record with 82, and Ingemar Stenmark holds the human mark with 86. That’s the club. It is small.

When you start to consider the slalom at Killington has been contested five times, and Shiffrin has won all five, and do the math that she has three individual seasons in which she has won more than 12 races — well, the stuff of dreams starts to seem real.

And yet …

“The way I used to think about it is that if I got to a certain point in my career with enough wins, I would actually finally start to feel confident that I am a winner and I deserve to be there and the success has come, I’m there,” Shiffrin said this week in a phone conversation from Killington. “I’m finally there. I’m at the destination.

“And I realize now that it’s never going to feel that way. And every single morning when I wake up, the first thing I’m going to think is: What do I have to do today to earn that again?”

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She has won everything her sport awards: Olympic gold medals (two), world championships gold medals (six), World Cup overall titles (four), races in every discipline offered. The driving, everyday motivation: Earn it all again.

“Which is fine,” she continued. “That’s not a bad feeling. In some ways, I think it’s almost a healthier way to live, not dwelling on things that have gone right in the past, just trying to continue to work on your dreams — wherever they take you.”

Killington — a giant slalom Saturday, a slalom Sunday — is the only U.S. stop on the women’s World Cup schedule. Shiffrin loves those events, just two hours from where she had her formative training, at Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy. “It’s such a gift, such a kind atmosphere, a kind crowd,” she said.

But it is also very much a business trip. She is there to work, and when some on the women’s circuit move on to speed races in Lake Louise, Canada, the following week, she will head back to Europe to concentrate on training for the technical events, giant slalom and slalom, in which she has posted 63 of her 76 World Cup victories.

In talking to Shiffrin over the years, beginning when she was 17 and bursting onto the international scene leading up to her first Olympics in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, I’ve often wondered whether her nervousness before races or her unrelenting quest for perfection — she is a training and video junkie — have overwhelmed the joy she derives from winning. Now that she’s 27 and somehow closer to the end of her career than the beginning, I realize I’ve been thinking of it backward.

Take some training sessions in Levi in the weeks before the races there. Rather than return to Copper Mountain in Colorado, where many American racers were training for speed, the U.S. technical racers stayed in Europe and trained in Finland — with some of the best Europeans. There, American teammate Paula Moltzan was laying down blazing run after blazing run.

“I would be like, ‘What do I have to do to try catch up to her?’ ” Shiffrin said. “And then maybe I’d get neck and neck or I’d get just a little bit faster — and then she would put down a faster time.” And her voice picks up with emotion here. “Those are the days that are pret-ty fun. That’s amazing to have in a training environment like that.”

We see the results and count the victories and figure out what’s possible and what would be legendary. For Shiffrin, there’s more joy in what we don’t see.

“It’s more like I’m ski racing for the training, and how much fun it is to train when I’m skiing well, vs. the racing,” Shiffrin said. “The racing part is kind of the thing that makes me question even if I want to do this, and the training is the thing that keeps me coming back.”

After the sudden and tragic death of her father, Jeff, early in 2020 and then the pandemic and all the havoc it wrought, coming back wasn’t always a guarantee. A Beijing Olympics in which she not only didn’t medal but also didn’t finish the slalom, giant slalom or Alpine combined could have pushed her further to the brink. Retirement — even at 27, with historic marks just ahead — is always somewhere on the front of the stove, slowly simmering.

“I’m glad that I have stuck with it to this point, but it’s definitely still something that’s always kind of crossing my mind,” Shiffrin said. “When is the moment going to come that I decide the work is not worth the reward anymore? And I don’t feel that so far mostly because the work — I actually really enjoy doing the work.”

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In her case, the work almost invariably yields results. The results are pushing limits only the sport’s legends have reached. But while the marks of Vonn and Stenmark are certainly within her field of vision, it doesn’t make them Shiffrin’s main motivation.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a factor at all, that I never thought about it,” Shiffrin said. “But it’s not the driving force.

“Lindsey, she earned the entire world of ski racing’s respect. Throughout her entire career, so much of what she did was so groundbreaking. So whatever I do, it doesn’t change anything that happened in her career. I would be so proud to hold that record. But it’s not the thing that makes me feel any kind of gratification when I look back on my career.”

She can look back on her career and realize she has already accomplished more than she could have hoped. The rest of us can look ahead and note the landmarks on the horizon. The joy for the crowd at Killington would be reveling in another Shiffrin victory. The joy for Shiffrin would be the improvement in training runs in the week leading up. Both can exist in the same space. They all lead to a place — with accomplishments bordering on unprecedented — that makes it hard to turn the brain off.