BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Mikaela Shiffrin feels hunted. Not just at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, hosted in her hometown this week next, but this entire season.
At age 19, she is defending both the slalom world championship and the overall world cup slalom titles.
“I like being the underdog and coming up and being like, ‘Gotcha,’” she said during a pre-championship press conference for sponsor Longines.
Which is exactly what she did at the 2013 world championships, coming from third place after the first run of slalom to win the title. She was only 17 years old then and became the youngest woman in U.S. history to win a world championship title.
But as usual, the pressure of defending this title is not bothering the unflappable teenager. Shiffrin pointed out that she has been in this situation before — that last season she successfully defended her overall world cup slalom title. To combat the pressure, she does what she’s always done: simply focuses on the process of skiing.
She has spent the last two weeks training in Vail, Colorado, her home mountain. And she feels well prepared. Since she was a junior racer, she has flourished from training, even backing off races each season during her junior career to focus only on training. With all the training, she feels like her slalom and giant slalom have jumped a step in the past few weeks.
“I like to think I have the capability to win two gold medals here,” she stated. “But I have to put my best skiing out there and see how it goes.”
Shiffrin will compete in the women’s giant slalom next Thursday and the slalom on Valentine’s Day. Although she had originally hoped to also compete in super-G, she realized the folly of that plan after entering two lower-level FIS super-G races at Colorado’s Copper Mountain in November. Skiing against other top world cup competitors, she finished 15th and 16th in the two races.
“I was maybe being a little bit arrogant, honestly,” she admitted. “I was thinking, ‘My GS is good, I’m not afraid of speed, I can just jump right in there with a couple days of super-G training and probably win,’ and I didn’t win. That was a really great wake-up call.”
“Super-G is not easy,” she added. “It’s a really tough event, you have to go for it. Those girls who win super-Gs are strong skiers. They’re not afraid, and they know how to ski the event, and I don’t yet.”
Over the next week, Shiffrin is continuing her slalom and GS training at Vail. Last week in a conference call, she commented that she felt as if she were training for an upcoming junior race, rather than a world championship.
“Being home, it has a special atmosphere,” she said. “I just feel like a little kid. That’s something that I’ve missed, so I’m really happy to have that feeling right now.”
The pressure is mounting though, and Shiffrin vividly remembers how she felt competing in her first world championship in Schladming, Austria, in 2013. She knew she had to lay down the fastest second run of slalom if she wanted to win her first world title.
“The last world championships, I was not feeling pressure, but the nerves that pressure brings, I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been,” she said. “Somehow I made it through there. I was really lucky that race.”
Now she feels like a more “weathered” ski racer. And she has always had the rare ability to turn pressure into an advantage.
“I could feel a lot of pressure, but it’s the exact position I want to be in,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, and that takes the pressure off.”
Retired ski racer Anja Paerson knows what Shiffrin is facing. The Swedish ski racer competed in seven world championships and won 11 medals, including seven gold. She won four of those gold medals in front of her compatriots in 2007, when the world championships came to Åre, Sweden.
Paerson said that she was able to use the pressure of a home championship to her advantage.
“I saw everything positive, and I saw all the support I got,” she said.
For Shiffrin, Paerson said it is important to balance media and sponsor obligations during a busy fortnight. But if the young American can do well in the giant slalom next Thursday, then this result will help her build confidence for defending her slalom title two days later.
“If she does a good GS,” said Paerson, “then she can totally win the slalom. It’s all about nerves the second run.”
The Swedish champion also pointed out that Shiffin is still young and has many world championships and Olympic Games ahead in her career — so if she does fail to win a medal here at Beaver Creek, then it is not the end of the world.
“If she thinks in that kind of way,” added Paerson, “then she can of course take a gold medal.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.