PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Mikaela Shiffrin has, at times, been super human this year.
The defending Olympic gold medalist in slalom skiing, she has won 10 world cup races across four alpine events so far this season. And in a nine-day stretch starting on New Year’s Day, she won five separate races: A dual slalom “city event,” a giant slalom and — her bread-and-butter — three slaloms.
“I was rested and had great training, great preparation going into [those races], so I was able to carry my momentum through that whole stretch,” said Shiffrin, looking relaxed during a press conference. “Everybody kept asking, ‘How do you keep this momentum going? How are you staying rested? You look like you have energy. You look fine. Everybody else is tired.’
“I started it off well, so I was able to end that stretch well.”
Then the 22-year-old showed that she has a regular, mortal side. She got tired.
Unnervingly close to the start of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she did not finish three races — a shocker for anyone who has followed Shiffrin’s storied career. In 128 world cup starts, she has only DNFed 14 times — or just over 10 percent of the races she has entered. In ski racing, where skiers often get thrown off course by bumps, holes, ruts or whatever else nature puts in their way, this is a remarkable statistic.
Most startling of all, she skied out of a slalom course three gates from the finish in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, less than two weeks ago. Momentum means much in sports, and this seemed like a bad sign.
For Shiffrin, it simply meant it was time to refuel.
“For me that was like a defining moment that I needed to take a step back and get a couple days of rest, then get back into training,” she said.
Shiffrin and her team flew to Korea nine days ago, and she was all smiles in the pre-race press conference, saying “hey” to the reporters and asking how everyone was doing.
“I feel much, much better now,” she said, also gushing about the great ski conditions in PyeongChang. “I’m really excited.”
So what is it about ski racing that is so tiring? It’s a sport that looks as if gravity does most of the work.
Beyond the nerves of race day — and performance anxiety that Shiffrin has suffered from in the past two seasons — ski racing involves a lot of mental prep. Skiers must memorize courses for both training and racing. Then before races, they spend hours visualizing the course and how they will ski it.
In races themselves, skiers must maintain Jedi-like focus until the finish. This is particularly important in downhill and super-G, where speeds are upwards of 60 miles per hour. One stray thought, and they might miss a nanosecond and veer off their line. A late turn or ill-timed jump can send them off course at best, hurtling into the safety nets at worst.
For Shiffrin, who is racing more speed events than ever this season, mental fatigue caught up with her in mid-January in Cortina, Italy. She finished third, then seventh in two downhills, then did not finish the super-G.
“Going to Cortina racing on the downhill track for the first time I realized how important it actually is to have experience [on a course] and how much more mental energy you use memorizing a course and then executing it for two training runs and then the race,” she said.
By the time Shiffrin reached the Lenzerheide World Cup, she was still skiing well. But mentally, she was on fumes.
“I wasn’t able to keep my mental focus until the finish, which is something I pride myself at being really good at normally,” she said. “So when I am not able to excel in the last quarter of a course, that’s when the red lights are flashing. That’s when I need to change something.”
Shiffrin confessed that her demeanor changes as well.
“When I get mentally tired, I get more emotional, I get annoying to my coaches,” she said. “I’m not fun to be around and I can’t focus as easily. All those things that are part of who I am kind of disappear.”
Now in PyeongChang, Shiffrin is feeling good. Her first race is giant slalom on Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.). With four giant slalom podium finishes so far this season, including two wins, she is a heavy favorite to medal.
Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Shiffrin then aims to defend her Olympic slalom gold medal.
After those two races, she will turn her focus to the combined, downhill and super-G.
“I would like to compete in everything,” she said. “I’m not sure how I would have the energy to do that. Right now I am focusing on slalom and GS.”
The coaches will decide who starts the speed races, and Shiffrin can pull out if the intensity of the Olympic Games catches up with her. But she hopes to compete in as many alpine ski events as possible.
She reflected on how far she has come in the last four years. At the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, she was a recent high-school graduate and pretty much a one-event skier. Now she could contend for Olympic medals in five, possibly even six events (including the alpine team race).
“In Sochi, I thought, no way I will ever be able to do that, it’s too much, I don’t have enough experience, I’m not a good enough skier, I’m going to be a slalom skier forever,” she said.
“To now be here and to know that I can actually excel at almost all the events, that’s really cool.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.