Mikaela Shiffrin has set an astounding number of alpine skiing records this season. Surprisingly, the 24-year-old skiing phenom’s expectations were far more modest.
After the 2019 world championships, where she won two titles, a reporter asked Shiffrin if she had exceeded her expectations this season.
“Well, um,” she started, “I guess the easy answer is when you don’t have expectations, it’s really easy to exceed them.”
Her biggest goal for the 2018-19 season was to win her first world cup season title in giant slalom. She also hoped to defend the overall world cup title, as well as add her sixth slalom crystal globe to the trophy closet and win her fourth world championship title in slalom. Check, check, check and check.
Anything else would be gravy.
The gravy boat flow-eth over. The wins. So many wins. 60 and counting. If Shiffrin keeps up this pace, in the next two years she will break Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 world cup wins.
But for Shiffrin, skiing is not about the records. It’s about the fun and satisfaction of making good turns and inspiring people with her skiing. However, she understands that records are what keep the public interested in the game of ski racing. And records provide a yardstick by which to measure and compare her achievements. It’s easy for most of us to miss the perfection in Shiffrin’s turns — because she makes skiing an icy, rutted racecourse look so easy that anyone could do it. The records help illustrate her near perfection.
The FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Finals wrapped up in Soldeu, Andorra, Sunday. Here’s a look at what Shiffrin accomplished this winter and her thoughts on it all.
Four World Cup Titles
Even before the season ended, Shiffrin wrapped up her third consecutive overall world cup title, with an almost-record 2,204 points (Slovenian Tina Maze holds the record with 2,414 and had advised Shiffrin to never strive to accrue so many points because the focus had stolen her passion for the sport).
Shiffrin also claimed her sixth slalom crystal globe, winning eight (of nine) races and tying Croatian legend Janica Kostelic for most slalom wins in one season. And Shiffrin tied Swiss legend Vreni Schneider, who also won six discipline titles (also in slalom). Only Vonn has won more (eight in downhill).
With Shiffrin’s dominance, the overall and slalom trophies almost seemed like givens (although she will repeatedly insist that each race is a fight with competitors equally as talented as she is). What she was really eying was her first world cup giant slalom title. Twice she had finished third in the giant slalom standings and second once. She came into the final giant slalom world cup in Andorra with a 97-point lead over Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova, who’s been on a giant slalom hot streak.
“It feels like GS has been such a long time coming,” said Shiffrin a few days before the race.
“Even though I’m still young, it’s one of those things I’ve been working on and I feel like I still have a lot of work to do. But I’m starting to find a feeling with my GS that I never knew this feeling existed. In training, I’ve been able to put down some fast fluid skiing. In races, a little bit as well. But it’s not necessarily the most consistent. And I still feel like when Tessa [Worley] or Vicki [Rebensburg] or Petra or any of these girls are skiing at their best as well, then it’s anybody’s race. I’m doing my best to control what I can control and just be aggressive. But it would mean so much to me.”
The giant slalom globe also held meaning because it showed Shiffrin that she can finish a season as strong as she started it. Women’s giant slalom is always held on the last day of world cup finals, and Shiffrin felt as if she had petered out after securing the slalom trophy in previous seasons. This year, she charged through the final gate.
Earlier at world cup finals, Shiffrin claimed her first world cup super-G title. Until this season, she had never won a super-G race. This year, she won three, then finished fourth in the finale last week — a race that she had not initially planned on entering. But who knew if such an opportunity would ever come along again?
“I’ve just been kind of giggling all day because I definitely didn’t think that this was going to happen this season,” she said by phone from Andorra.
In previous seasons, she felt as if her timing and rhythm were off in super-G — a discipline that combines the speed of downhill with the turns of giant slalom. In off-season speed training, her coaches had had her focus more on downhill than super-G.
“I think that’s because everybody thought that I would naturally be better at super-G than downhill, so I needed more focus on downhill,” she said.
Last spring, she asked her coaches if she could spend more time training super-G, and she found a ski setup that worked well. She also won her first world championship gold in super-G in February.
With the world cup slalom, giant slalom and super-G discipline titles, plus the overall, Shiffrin joins a small group of six skiers (including Vonn) who have won four or more globes in one season, Switzerland’s Pirmin Zurbriggin being the only one to have won five (1987). However, no other athlete — male or female — has won this combination of four globes: slalom, giant slalom, super-G and overall. In fact, most of the four or more season globe winners had an alpine combined globe as one of their globes, and alpine combined races are not held regularly.
17 World Cup Wins In One Season
When Shiffrin won the world cup slalom in Spindleruv Mlyn in the Czech Republic on March 9, she beat Vreni Schneider’s record of 14 world cup season wins, a record that had stood for 30 years. Shiffrin currently stands at 60 world cup wins total, fifth on the all-time list behind Ingemar Stenmark (86), Lindsey Vonn (82), Marcel Hirscher (67 and counting) and Annemarie Moser-Pröll (62).
Again, it was about keeping her expectations low.
“Just go into every race, expect nothing, keep my standards high with my skiing, try to ski well and ski fast and do the best that I can with the actual task at hand,” she said after tying Schneider’s record of 14 wins in late February. “If it works out, then that’s great. It’s been the mentality that’s totally driven me through this season.”
Shiffrin went on to win the March 16 and 17 slalom and giant slalom races at world cup finals, bringing the new record of single-season wins to 17.
Mikaela Shiffrin wins the overall global at the Audi FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup on March 17, 2019 in Soldeu, Andorra.
40 Slalom Wins
In December, Shiffrin surpassed her childhood idol Marlies Schild in number of career slalom wins, then went on to win six more slaloms this season, tying Stenmark with 40 slalom victories. With her typical humility and graciousness, Shiffrin still considers Schild the greatest slalom skier ever.
“For me, Marlies will always be the greatest women’s slalom skier because she completely pioneered a new style of slalom skiing,” Shiffrin said earlier this year. “And she was the one that I watched all growing up. Honestly, she was the one who made it possible for me to ski slalom the way that I do. So I can’t ever feel like, oh yeah, I took that record from her. That’s hers. For me, that’s always going to be hers.”
Wins Across All 6 Alpine Events
Shiffrin is the only alpine skier ever to win world cup races in slalom, giant slalom, super-G, downhill, combined and parallel slalom (also known as a city event). In a two-week span in December 2018, she won a slalom, super-G, parallel slalom and giant slalom, equaling a record set by Bode Miller, who won four distinct events in a two-month time span in 2004 and inspired a young Shiffrin.
After this month of dominance, Shiffrin explained (again) that it’s not about winning but about performing her best: “It is a matter of taking it day by day and working on my skiing and trying to get to the level that I’m still searching for, a feeling in races where I can put my very best skiing out there, without the scoreboard, without seeing what the results are, to say that was the very best skiing in the world, that it was better than what anybody else could do today.”
Four Consecutive World Championship Slalom Golds
Shiffrin is the only skier ever to win four consecutive world championship gold medals in one event (slalom). She accomplished the feat this year while battling “a little bit of pneumonia,” she said shortly after that race.
Yet for Shiffrin, it’s not about the records or the emotional drama of achieving these records. She only thinks about it in the gym during the off-season when she’s faced with a hard set of intervals — to motivate her through the pain of the workout.
But on the hill, that much emotion would derail her skiing. When she thinks about results, she rarely achieves them.
“Pretty much never,” she emphasized on a media call while recovering from that touch of pneumonia after world championships. “When I’m in the starting gate thinking I want to win, I bring the intensity too high.”
Emotional intensity is exhausting and can lead to mistakes in a racecourse. And mistakes take away the fun — the fun of making perfect turns.
And that’s what it’s about for Shiffrin — the feeling of her skis on edge, arcing from turn to turn in perfect balance and going as fast as she can. It requires an enormous amount of core, leg, gluteal and hip strength to remain balanced (just ask Shiffrin about “GS back,” the torque that the rotational and G-forces put on a skier’s spinal muscles) and talent to keep pressing forward when physics want to dictate otherwise. Done right, it can feel like a self-made amusement park ride.
As Shiffrin said, “The feeling is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.”
And as her archrival Vlhova said after one race this season, “She’s perfect in every turn.”
Perhaps most importantly, in skiing what might be called a perfect season, Shiffrin did it her way, skipping races when she and her team knew that she needed to recharge.
“I want to be able to win in everything but not to the point where I’m going to lose my passion because the schedule is so grueling, and racing day in and day out especially for someone who’s more of an introverted personality, I don’t necessarily draw strength from racing or being in that spotlight during races,” she said, in an honest assessment of her strengths and weaknesses.
“That’s why we manage my schedule the way we do in an effort to end the season in a good place and in a motivated place. I can’t wait to get back on my skis and train again. I’m already excited for next season.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.