At a certain point, the manner in which the best in any field evaluate themselves can’t be against other practitioners of that same pursuit. LeBron isn’t measured against his contemporaries; he’s measured against Jordan. Tiger in his prime was chasing not just Nicklaus but the limits of golf itself.
So, Mikaela, how are you skiing?
“I would say there’s a lot of wiggle room, a lot of room for improvement,” she said in a phone interview this week.
Here’s where we stand with Shiffrin in this non-Olympic year: She is so far clear from the field that she is playing a different game. She is in the discussion of the most dominant athlete on the planet right now, the Katie Ledecky of skiing. Come to think of it, it might be nice to get the two of them together to discuss — honestly, without demurring, as they’re prone to do — what it’s like to be so much better than anyone else in the world is at anything.
And if they did, there certainly would be caution.
“You start to think, ‘Yeah, maybe I am unbeatable,’ ” Shiffrin said. “And as soon as you start acting that way, you get beat.”
Except she doesn’t. Not often, anyway. In 14 World Cup races this year, she has eight wins. That’s across all disciplines, so it’s a little unfair because no skier can master them all. Yet this season alone, Shiffrin has victories in slalom, giant slalom, parallel slalom and super-G, the sport’s second-speediest discipline behind downhill. In her bread-and-butter slalom, the event in which she won the gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics yet somehow stumbled to fourth last year in PyeongChang, she is a perfect 4 for 4. When she starts Saturday’s slalom in Zagreb, Croatia, she will be looking for her 13th win in the past 14 World Cup slaloms.
It’s difficult for an athlete in a sport most people widely acknowledge only once every four years to maintain a place in the public consciousness. Just like Ledecky, who keeps resetting what seems possible in swimming even as the Tokyo Olympics are 19 months away, Shiffrin is proving she deserves a spotlight at a time it normally shines elsewhere. The numbers, by now, are overwhelming.
“I don’t keep track of the numbers,” Shiffrin said. “I can’t. But I keep hearing about them. This season has been almost comical. There’s just a list of statistics and numbers and records, and people say, ‘Did you know about this?’ And I’m like, ‘Uhhhh . . .’ ”
Let everyone else keep track. The victory she took last week in Semmering, Austria, was the 36th World Cup slalom win of her career. That surpasses the mark of Austria’s Marlies Schild, one of Shiffrin’s idols, for the most by a woman in history. It was her 15th victory across all disciplines in a calendar year, the most for any skier, man or woman. She has 51 career World Cup victories, fourth most among women.
Check her birth certificate: She is 23.
So all the history, it’s right there for her. For World Cup fans, this season began with an overarching question: Could Lindsey Vonn, 34 years old and the best female skier ever, grow her total of 82 World Cup victories and surpass Ingemar Stenmark’s 86, the record for either gender?
Now, as the season barrels toward next month’s world championships in Are, Sweden, and Vonn is out because of injuries in what was supposed to be her final season before retirement, a more pertinent question might be when Shiffrin will pass them all. Consider the pace: When Vonn was 23, she had 13 World Cup wins.
“For sure I think about the numbers,” Shiffrin said. “I guess the thing is, they’re motivation outside of the actual skiing, if that makes any sense.”
Her point: When she’s working out in the summer, pushing through pain when there’s no immediate slope to descend or turn to carve, thinking of records can help propel her forward. But when she’s in the starting gate and a race is immediately afoot, she must cleanse her mind of such thoughts. There is the task at hand, which amounts to minutia, and the overall goals, which are momentous. They must be dealt with separately.
“When I was a little girl, I dreamt of being the best ski racer in the world,” Shiffrin said. “Breaking records is part of that. I guess it wasn’t the reason for that dream, but in order to be the best in the world, you’re going to have to break some records.”
She is the best in the world, and the records are coming. She is still getting her mind around the idea that she has more slalom wins than Schild, the skier she used to — and still does — watch tape of when she needs to get back to basics and re-center herself in her best discipline.
But she also is becoming aware that she’s no longer the little girl watching videos of her heroes. She is the woman in the videos the kids are watching. Her personal satisfaction still comes from those rare runs on which her skiing stands up even to her own scrutiny, and she gets to the bottom, looks back up the hill and thinks, “That’s unbeatable.”
She realizes, though, that the records bring attention. And that attention is going to build the generation of American ski racers behind her. So there is another element to her skiing and the results it is producing: inspiration.
“If I didn’t inspire anybody,” she said, “I didn’t do my job.”
She is doing her job like virtually no one ever has. For so long, Vonn was tasked with pushing skiing into the American consciousness. Now, all that’s left for the 2010 Olympic downhill champ is trying to return to health and form at some point later this season and then one last shot next winter at Lake Louise, Alberta, her favorite venue, in what will amount to a retirement ceremony. Her body is broken, but her legend is secure.
With that, Shiffrin holds the mantle and holds it alone. Maybe most Americans won’t check back in until the next Winter Olympics, in 2022. In the meantime, the young woman who’s in the discussion as the world’s most dominant athlete will be over here, quietly breaking her sport.
“I’m doing it,” she said. “I’m living my dream.”