Mikaela Shiffrin competes in the first run of the slalom during the Audi FIS Women's Alpine Ski World Cup at the Nature Valley Aspen Winternational on Nov. 28, 2015 in Aspen, Colo.
Last weekend, Mikaela Shiffrin swept both slalom races at the alpine skiing world cup in Aspen, Colorado. And she won the first slalom by 3.07 seconds — the largest margin of victory ever in women’s slalom.
With these two wins, plus her second-place finish in the Soelden world cup giant slalom race in October, the 20-year-old alpine skiing phenom now holds the overall world cup lead.
This week, she is heading to Lake Louise, Alberta, for her first world cup speed race — a super-G. It’s a whole new world, she joked after the Aspen races.
“Welcome to your 20s!” she said.
So what makes Shiffrin so fast? And how is she likely to fare in the super-G? She talked about it in Aspen after her slalom wins.
1. Preparing For Disasters
Slalom is often described as a series of linked recoveries. The gates come quickly, and other skiers’ ruts can make for a bumpy ride. The fast tempo and bumps can easily throw off skiers, causing them to miss gates or crash.
But Shiffrin is rock solid in slalom. She maintains her balance in the course so well that it’s difficult to even tell when she is recovering from a bobble.
How does she do this? Like an airline pilot, she works on more than smooth flying. She also practices getting out of trouble.
“I do silly things in training like go too straight (at a gate), and then I get bobbled off the course a little bit,” she explained.
She then practices recovering to stay in the course. And most of the time she is successful.
“I finish every run unless I’ll get injured if I try to save it,” she said.
Confident that she can recover, she pushes her speed.
“(I’m) pushing the limit, then the limit that you thought was impossible yesterday becomes the new normal,” she added. “Then you can push it again.”
2. It Adds Up
Shiffrin often skis a tighter line to the gates than her competitors, gaining a fraction of a second per gate.
With 57-58 gates in the Aspen slaloms, the fractions saved quickly added up.
“That’s a lot of speed right there,” she said.
When she was younger, Shiffrin explained that she did lots of drills and technical freeskiing. While her friends were “jumping off cliffs or powder skiing,” she practiced her carved turns on groomed snow and mastered proper technique.
The downside? She was “robotic” and had to learn to bring more athleticism to her skiing. But nothing trumps good technique in ski racing.
“I’ve had coach after coach who followed the same program — technique first, tactics first, the speed will come if I run really solid on my skis,” she said.
4. She’s Learned Her Atomic Number
Shiffrin has become more in tune with her ski equipment this year. An example: she likes a sharp ski, but on the dry Rocky Mountain snow in Aspen, she realized that she needed her service tech to dull the tips and tails. Her skis were still sharp under her binding, but duller tips and tails did not unexpectedly grab the dry, grippy snow and leave her feeling out of control.
She has also worked with equipment sponsor Atomic to develop and select equipment that suits her style of skiing and strength.
“It’s been an awesome partnership,” she said. “They’ve been so helpful teaching me and helping me learn.”
5. The World (Cup) Is Her Classroom
Since her world cup debut in March 2011 — when she was 15 years old — and her first podium nine months later, Shiffrin has remained humble and aware that she still has much to learn.
Now with 17 world cup victories, two world championship titles, and an Olympic gold medal, Shiffin continues to learn from her elders. If she feels as if her timing is off, she will watch video of her hero, former slalom world champion Marlies Schild.
This year, Shiffrin said she is attacking in the racecourse more than in the past.
“Something I kept learning over and over last year is how much (world cup overall winners) Anna Fenninger and Tina Maze, all of those girls, they attack so much,” she said. “That’s when I figured out I really don’t deserve to be on the podium unless I’m going to take some risks.”
Although this tactic did not help her in the Aspen giant slalom (she fell near the finish), she plans to continue skiing this way.
“I want more than anything to be a technical skier, not just a slalom skier, but a slalom and GS skier. I think I’m a threat for both now.”
6. She’s Hungry To Branch Out
From Aspen, Shiffrin is heading to Canada for her first speed race, the Lake Louise super-G on Sunday, Dec. 6. She wants to “get those first world cup speed jitters out of the way” and see where she finishes.
The only speed races on her resume are two NorAm downhills at Copper Mountain in Colorado in mid-November — where she finished 10th and 24th — and one super-G in 2009. She finished third in the Eastern J3 Olympics super-G when she was in eighth grade.
She loves speed though.
“There’s so much speed between the gates, it’s like turn off your brain and when in doubt, go straighter,” she said. “That’s totally different than anything I’ve felt before. In slalom, when in doubt, turn more.”
Shiffrin has no idea where she will finish in the Lake Louise super-G but is happy to again be an underdog.
“I like that feeling of knowing that I’m chasing the other girls,” she admitted.
“I’m going to be attacking as much as I can,” she said. “I’m really excited to see what world cup speed is all about and try to learn as much as I can from the other U.S. girls.”
She will be learning from the best. Teammate Lindsey Vonn has won the Lake Louise downhill 12 times and the super-G three times. Over the past 11 years, Vonn and teammate Stacey Cook have finished on the podium 22 times.
Although she is currently leading the overall world cup standings, Shiffrin said that the overall title is not her primary goal this season.
“I'm focused more on the giant slalom and slalom globes this year,” she said. “It seems like I have a shot at the overall but there are so many other girls, (Swiss skier) Lara Gut and Lindsey of course. Lindsey Vonn is probably the biggest favorite for the overall again.”
But Shiffrin is realistic: “A lot can happen between now and the end of the season.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.