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Mikaela Shiffrin: From One Breakthrough To The Next

By Peggy Shinn | Nov. 13, 2014, 3:13 p.m. (ET)

Mikaela Shiffrin takes joint first place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup women's giant slalom on Oct. 25, 2014 in Soelden, Austria.

Mikaela Shiffrin attends the 2014 ESPYS at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 16, 2014 in Los Angeles.

Since her world cup debut at age 15 in 2011, Mikaela Shiffrin’s alpine skiing career has been marked by a rapid succession of firsts. She scored her first world cup points (top 30) in slalom in November 2011, then first world cup podium a month later.

A year after that, in December 2012, Shiffrin won her first world cup slalom. Within two months, she won her first world championship crown. Then at the end of the 2013 season, she earned her first overall slalom world cup title.

Last season, she claimed her first giant slalom podium and her first Olympic slalom medal.

Shiffrin began the current world cup season by winning her first giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, in late October. She tied Anna Fenninger, from Austria, the defending overall world cup champion.

“I’m hoping that each year is going to be a breakthrough year in some aspect of my skiing,” Shiffrin said at a press conference in New York City hosted by Vail-Beaver Creek, site of the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Colorado in February. “It just keeps coming at me."

To her list of firsts, Shiffrin — still only 19 — hopes to add first world championship giant slalom medal and first super-G world cup start this season. And very soon, first overall world cup title.

“I have been training a little bit of super-G,” she said. “I know everybody’s pretty anxious to hear when I’m going to be racing my first super-G. The date is not set but it’s going to be sometime this winter.”

Shiffrin is hoping to race in a world cup super-G before world championships start on her home mountains of Vail and Beaver Creek. If she does well in a world cup super-G, she can earn a spot competing in the discipline at worlds.

“But I know that we have a pretty fast team on the U.S. Ski Team,” she acknowledged. “So I have to qualify. I don’t take that lightly.”

Also vying for super-G start positions at worlds will be Julia Mancuso (three-time world championship medalist in super-G), Leanne Smith (regular top-10 world cup finisher in speed events), Jacqueline Wiles (first world cup super-G top 30 last season), and former world super-G champion Lindsey Vonn, who is aiming to return to the world cup in December.

Whether or not she is competing in super-G, Shiffrin will be aiming to defend her world championship slalom title in February, and add one in giant slalom.

Asked what has helped her giant slalom skiing this season, she cited more experience — although she knows that she is still 10 years younger than many of her competitors. She also watched “a boatload” of Ted Ligety skiing giant slalom on video but confessed with a laugh, “I still have no idea what he does.”

What’s mostly helped, she said, is loosening up and feeling the flow of the course and the arc of her turns.

“I’ve always had trouble arcing the top of the turn,” she said. “Ted is the best in the world at arcing. It seems to be the fastest way to get down the mountain and also the safest if you can really tip your skis on edge and take that leap of faith.”

A master of slalom, Shiffrin is also finally figuring out the timing of giant slalom, with its more wide-open turns. 

“In slalom, it’s easy to get the timing because there is no timing,” she said. “You just switch from edge to edge. In GS, there’s a little bit more of a transition, and there’s more time in between gates. I’ve always found myself twiddling my thumbs in between the gates trying to figure out when I need to start the new turn. I’m starting to get that timing better. So that’s been a huge step for me.”

The improved timing has carried over to slalom as well. 

“That’s been my advantage, I think, for the past few years is that I have a good rhythm,” she said. “If I get a better rhythm, then it will be even better.”

Just how much better she will see on Saturday, when the world cup travels to Levi, Finland, for the first slalom of the season. This will be her third time competing in Levi. In 2012, she finished third; last season, she won — her first of six slalom wins in 2014, including the race in Sochi, Russia.

Despite the distractions caused by her rapid trajectory and her 2014 Olympic gold medal, Shiffrin seems unfazed and as grounded as she was when she first began competing on the world cup circuit — back when she did her high school homework between races. She is surrounded by a strong support team, including her parents who help her “keep her eye on the target and try to help her keep things simple in her mind,” said her mom, Eileen Shiffrin. Like refusing interviews if there are too many requests.

Mostly, though, Mikaela Shiffrin remains undaunted by celebrity because “she’s not that crazy about fame,” said Eileen Shiffrin. “She doesn’t go out and about that much looking for activity. That’s not who she is.”

“We just do this,” Eileen Shiffrin added, referring to the media event, “then we go home and watch TV.”

But when her daughter is mobbed by fans in Europe, Eileen Shiffrin said that she’s handling it well. 

“Mikaela’s still at the point where she’s flattered if somebody comes up to her and says something,” Eileen Shiffrin said. 

And when the world championships come to Mikaela Shiffrin’s hometown in February, she will definitely be mobbed by ski-racing fans. 

“Throughout the summer I could feel the energy building — everyone’s really psyched,” Mikaela Shiffrin said. “I can’t wait to get back in February for the world championships. It’s going to be big, and special, like a mini Olympics — I’m really excited to be a part of it.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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