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On The Brink Of History At Alpine Worlds, Mikaela Shiffrin Begins To Realize Her Sport Is A Metaphor For Life

By Craig Bohnert | Feb. 06, 2017, 7:11 p.m. (ET)

Mikaela Shiffrin reacts as she wins the women's giant slalom at the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup on Dec. 27, 2016 in Semmering, Austria.

Ten days away from potentially making history as the first female American skier to win three consecutive slalom world championships, Mikaela Shiffrin spoke philosophically about the growth she has experienced in the past year as she looked ahead to competing at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, which start Tuesday in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Hoping to join Ted Ligety as the only American skiers to win three straight world titles, Shiffrin confirmed that she would be competing solely in the technical events, slalom and giant slalom. A fourth-place finish in super-G a week ago in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, had some observers speculating she may expand her competitive schedule.

“Obviously in Cortina I had a really incredible result in the super-G,” the reigning Olympic slalom champion noted. “A huge part of that was I had a couple of days of really good training on a great surface. The surface in the race was really spectacular. It was very consistent and the perfect thing that we like to race on. The visibility was great, it was sunny. We have a joke on the team that I’m a fair weather speed skier. I’m not quite at the level where I can put it down the hill when it’s bad weather.”

Snowfall on the St. Moritz slopes has led to a less consistent surface, which prompted Shiffrin’s decision to focus on her two primary events. But it doesn’t mean she hasn’t dismissed the idea of eventually expanding to the speed events.

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“That result in Cortina is making me think that as I develop I could be a really strong speed skier and a really strong all-around skier,” she said. “One of the tricky things right now is how I can continue to improve in speed and gain experience without losing my slalom.”

She also spoke of how she spent time growing the mental aspects of her game while also healing the knee injury she suffered in December 2015 in Are, Sweden.

“It started last year, when I got injured and was going through rehab,” she said. “I was thinking ‘Why am I working so hard to get back to the sport? Do I need to get back to ski racing this season? Maybe I should just take the time and come back next year. What’s the rush?’

“I had those questions going through my mind a lot, but I had some nagging feeling like I had to get back to it. I’ve never had that question before. When I was younger, when I won my first world championship title, my first Olympics, all these things happened and I didn’t question it, I just thought ‘This is great and I’m having fun.’”

The 21-year-old realized that, although fully invested in the “what” of a process that has led to 28 world cup victories and 40 podiums since her debut in March 2011 (two days before her 16th birthday), she hadn’t reflected on the “why.”

“I cared, but I didn’t know why I cared, I just cared,” she said. “Now I’m starting to wonder what my place is in the sport, what my place is in the world and why this is important to me. Those kinds of things are leaving me with more questions than answers.”

Her journey of self-discovery also has led to a growing realization that what once were simple answers are far more complex.

“It’s making it a little more difficult to say when I come into the finish and I don’t look so happy if I’ve had a bad result, it’s more than just being happy or sad,” she observed. “There are so many different things that go into that. It’s part of why I love the sport. It’s a metaphor for life, and I’m starting to realize that more.”

Bad results have been few and far between on the world cup circuit this season. She’s logged a total of 10 podium finishes, winning the first four slalom races to extend to seven a string that began last year. Her five wins and a third place have her atop the slalom standings, and three podiums in giant slalom, including two wins, have launched her to the overall cup lead. Four races remain, with the final two on home snow: March 10-11 in Squaw Valley, California, and March 18-19 in Aspen, Colorado, close to her hometown of Vail, for the World Cup Final.

“It’s been an incredible season so far,” she observed. “I’ve had more wins this season than I ever have before. I could go home right now and feel pretty successful, but I am really excited to be here racing at world championships and excited to finish the season. Especially with the races in Squaw Valley and Aspen, my home country.”

Competing at worlds offers her a chance to experience the freedom of stepping to starting gate without having to weigh the impact her performance will have on her place in the standings.

“You go to the world championships or the Olympics and you’re going for medals,” she said. “It’s a very simple focus. It’s not easy to do, but the goal is that’s it’s all or nothing. It’s nice to come to a race where the goal is mapped out for you. You don’t have to come into it with a certain tactic, you don’t have to think about points, about finishing the race to get a few more points. You’re going to win, or go out of the course, or maybe just have a bad race and it doesn’t go your way.”

Asked about the secret to her success, she credits one of her coaches, who also happens to be her mother, Eileen.

“The fact is she’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with in ski racing,” Shiffrin said. “She’s developed as a coach as I’ve developed as an athlete. She knows me so well, to a point where it makes me mad that she knows how to push me when I need to be pushed and how to take the pressure off when I’m feeling it too much. Most great champions have somebody close to them who can push them in that sense. She’s that person for me.”

Shiffrin also credits her mother for assembling a support team that puts personal accountability at the forefront, something she thinks is uncommon.

“She helped me choose the team around me that asks the hard-hitting questions and put pressure on me,” she said. “They don’t allow me to make excuses, and that’s one of the things I see with a lot of other athletes. There are a lot of excuses. Maybe that’s the next secret, that in general I’ll take the blame when I’m supposed to. That’s because they make me do that.”

She credits that team for this season’s success, and for preparing her for the challenges at worlds and the stretch run to at least one, if not two, of the crystal globes awarded to the world cup season champions.

“I feel really good right now,” she said. “Somehow I’ve gotten to this point of the season with the overall lead. I attribute that to trying to stay the course, focusing on my main events and balancing energy and racing and training – trying to figure out what that perfect balance is. There are a lot of people helping me manage this. It’s not easy, but at this point in the season, to feel the way I do, I’m maybe not 100 percent, but I feel pretty energized and excited. That’s a really good place to be.”

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Mikaela Shiffrin

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