Go For The Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin

Go For The Gold

BY PEGGY SHINN I JAN. 08, 2013

 
Mikaela Shiffrin takes first place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World
Cup women's slalom on January 4, 2013 in Zagreb, Croatia.

When Mikaela Shiffrin was little, she liked to run around the house with a towel as a cape draped down her back.

“I would run around and pretend I was some sort of something … special,” she said, laughing.

Now the 17-year-old slalom phenom really is something special. She’s the first American alpine skier to win two World Cup races before she’s old enough to vote. And thanks to winning the title of Snow Queen in Zagreb, Croatia, right after the New Year, she now has a real cape to call her own, fur-trimmed and all.

Shiffrin’s fairy-tale ski career began on the slopes of Vail, Colorado. But she didn’t especially like freeskiing Vail’s Back Bowls. Instead, she liked to run gates.

In 2003, when Shiffrin was 8, she moved east with her family to Lyme, New Hampshire, where her dad, Jeffrey, worked as an anesthesiologist at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. On winter nights after school, Mikaela and her older brother Taylor would eat Spaghettios in the car on the way to nearby Storrs Hill, then train for three hours under the lights.

Shiffrin’s talent in the gates was quickly apparent. At races, she beat kids in the next age bracket (9-10 years old). Rick Colt, a coach for the Lebanon Outing Club, which is based at tiny Storrs Hill, saw his job as primarily trying to find competition that would challenge her.

While some claim that it was Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who pushed her daughter in the gates, Colt saw it differently.

“(Mikaela) pushed herself, she really wanted it,” he said.

In 2008, the Shiffrins moved back to Colorado. But Mikaela followed Taylor to Burke Mountain Academy in northern Vermont. The ski racing academy that helped foster talents like Olympic gold medalist Diann Roffe and world championship silver medalist Julie Parisien seemed perfect for a prodigal skier who had recently won the slalom at the 2008 Whistler Cup, a major international race for juniors, by a staggering 3.35 seconds. Shiffrin won the giant slalom that year as well.

Though Shiffrin was good, no one yet knew how good. Then in March 2010, a few days shy of her 15th birthday, she competed in the Trofeo Topolino — another top international race for juniors. There, Shiffrin capped an almost perfect season by winning the GS with a come-from-behind second run. And she claimed the slalom title by another huge margin (3.36 seconds), beating the boys who competed on the same course.

“There’s a saying that if a girl dominates at Trofeo Topolino, she will make it to the World Cup,” said Colt. “But if she beats the boys there, she will dominate the World Cup.”

A year later, Shiffrin earned a World Cup start after taking a bronze medal at the 2011 Alpine Junior World Ski Championships and claiming the overall slalom NorAm title. But in her first two World Cups, “under the umbrella of her heroines all around,” said her dad, she did not qualify for a second run. The experience left her mad at herself — “I can ski better than I’ve skied the last two weeks,” she seemed to say to herself. She came home from Europe and promptly won her first national crown, beating four-time Olympian Sarah Schleper in slalom.

“She’s always had a quickness to transition in her turns,” said her dad. “You see her fly between turns. Most people hang onto the turn trying to get to the next one. She just flows to it.”

But U.S. Ski Team coach Roland Pfeifer says Shiffrin does not rely on talent alone. “She is working like crazy, 24 hours, all about skiing,” he said. “She’s really delivered practicing all the time, every day.”

 
Mikaela Shiffrin competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup
women's slalom on December 29, 2012 in Semmering, Austria.

All the practice has helped Shiffrin become remarkably strong in the final 15-20 gates of a race where most racers grow ragged from fatigue. Ted Ligety calls Shiffrin more “physically mature” than Resi Stiegler, her U.S. teammate who’s 27.

“In some ways, (Mikaela) doesn’t ski like a 17-year-old,” wrote Ligety in his diary for the Denver Post. “She is crazy good for how young she is.”

Now, as a high school senior who still can’t legally drive, Shiffrin has earned World Cup hardware four times, including two wins. Both wins have come in night slaloms that have harkened back to those training nights at Storrs Hill.

“Deep in my muscle memory was this feeling that it’s home,” said Shiffrin, after her first World Cup win in Åre, Sweden, in December 2012. “I know what it’s like to train under the lights and race under the lights, and that was just huge.”

Four days into 2013, Shiffrin dominated the Snow Queen night slalom, winning the crown (and cape!) by 1.19 seconds. In the finish corral, she shimmied and hopped to “Gangnam Style.”

“I was in that zone where you feel like you’re skiing well and almost feel unstoppable, I guess, but that sounds really weird,” said Shiffrin, laughing again.

Mostly, she was trying to uphold a tradition set by Marlies Schild, a four-time Snow Queen. Schild, 31, the reigning overall World Cup slalom champion, was injured training in December.

“I was thinking about Marlies’s win last year,” said Shiffrin of the Austrian slalom star. “She had such a big margin (1.4 seconds), and I was thinking about that before my second run. I’ve got to do her justice here if I’m going to win. She’s the real Snow Queen.”

Shiffrin is also being compared to another one of her idols, Lindsey Vonn, who was 20 when she won her first World Cup, a downhill in Lake Louise. Like Vonn, Shiffrin would like to contend for the overall World Cup title one day. This would require that she start competing in the speed disciplines (downhill and super G).

For now, her goal is to dial in her slalom and GS technique. She is making “little mistakes, like leaning in,” she said — mistakes that she does not normally make in training, just under the pressure of racing. Then the transition to speed skiing should come easily. As for a time frame, Shiffrin only says, “fairly soon.”

“I’m itching to go fast. I love speed.”

Before then, she has high school to finish — hopefully this spring, though she admits it’s hard to keep up with classes while traversing Europe — and perhaps an overall World Cup slalom title to win, not to mention a world championship medal in February.

“My only focus is just to ski my best every day,” said the reigning Snow Queen. “I’ll be happy with a world championship medal or a 15th place, as long as I’m skiing my best.”

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.