Mikaela Shiffrin competes during the first run in the 57th Golden Fox Maribor - Audi FIS Ski World Cup Championships on Jan. 16, 2021 in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
Mikaela Shiffrin is about to fly again.
One year, two weeks after she last competed in a super-G race, the two-time Olympic medalist plans to ski in two speed events at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships 2021 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy - combined (one run of super-G, one run slalom) on Monday and Super-G the next day.
She also plans to compete in the giant slalom and slalom on February 18th, and 20th, respectively.
It’s the most events Shiffrin has ever skied at a world championships and gives her four chances to add to her collection of seven world championship medals, including five gold.
Shiffrin, 25, is the reigning super-G world champion — as well as the reigning slalom world champ. But after a difficult year, she only started training the speed discipline again on January 26—a year to the day after she last competed in it. Since then, she has had just a handful of days training on the longer skis.
With so little training and against a strong field of women, including Switzerland’s Lara Gut-Behrami who won the last four world cup super-G races, Shiffrin does not intend to defend her super-G world title this year and wants to meter her fans’ expectations.
“It's world championships, so I'm going to try to ski as fast as I can, and I think that I'll be able to have a pretty good result,” she said on a recent media call. “I have absolutely no guarantee that it's going to stack up, or if it's going to be good enough to defend my super-G title, which was honestly, I think, a little bit of a surprise that I got it in the first place [in 2019].”
Instead, Shiffrin—who is known more for her technical skiing in slalom and giant slalom—will use the world championship super-G as a chance to train speed again.
She also has a tactical reason for entering the world championship super-G. It will earn her start points so when she returns to racing super-G on the world cup tour, she will not start from the back of the pack.
Shiffrin also loves Cortina’s Olympia delle Tofane downhill course (where the super-G is also run). With the Dolomites soaring above the track, the views are stunning, and the village welcomes the racers. She competed in her first super-G here in 2017 (finishing fourth), then won the super-G in 2019. She has also finished on the podium in downhill at Cortina.
“We’re focused on skiing, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to be doing it in a beautiful place,” she said.
Beyond its beauty, Olympia delle Tofane suits Shiffrin. More than a flat-out speed course, it rewards racers who like to combine speed and technical skills.
“I’d be remiss to not take advantage of an opportunity to get on that hill again,” she said.
The Pressure of World Championships
So how is Shiffrin handling the pressure of her fifth world championships—during a year that has been turned upside down for everyone, but particularly Shiffrin?
She is not thinking about expectations, or the chance to become the first “five-peat” world champion—she has won every world slalom title since the 2013 world championships in Schladming, Austria.
Instead, she relies on advice given to her by American downhiller Steven Nyman at that Schladming world championship.
In third place after the first run of slalom, Shiffrin—then only 17 years old—was a bundle of nerves between the two runs. She had just started winning world cup races that year and was leading the world cup slalom standings. She sat in the hospitality tent, headphones glued to her ears, a picture of stress.
“What’s wrong with her?” Nyman asked Shiffrin’s mom, Eileen.
“She’s really nervous and tired,” replied Eileen.
Nyman asked her to remove her headphones, then gave her advice that she has remembered at every world championship and Olympic Games since then.
“At world championships, there is one goal,” he told her. “You're not trying to protect your overall title or season title lead. You're not protecting anything. You go for gold, that's it.”
He explained that everyone at world championships and the Olympic Games has one goal, whether they are leading after the first run or they’re in thirtieth place: everyone wants to win.
“So get it out of your mind that you have to have a tactical approach to the second run in order to protect something because there's nothing to protect,” he reminded her. “You have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So go for it.”
“It didn’t take my nerves away,” remembered Shiffrin, who ended winning her first world championship slalom title that day. “But it got me psyched up to do my best. Every world championships since then, I have always remembered what Steven said.”
As for how she handles her emotions after a win or just a stellar run, Shiffrin learned from six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller.
When she was younger, Shiffrin noticed that Miller—one of her idols—would kneel down in the finish corral and cover his face with his skis after he won (or had a great run). At the 2013 world championships, Shiffrin finally understood why he reacted this way.
“In the moments when you can't process it enough and the camera is in your face and everything's happening, and you just need a moment to yourself … I totally get why he needed that,” said Shiffrin, an introvert who is occasionally criticized for not celebrating her wins with enough jubilation.
“Sometimes just taking a quiet moment and not hearing what’s going on outside of your own brain is really nice,” she added. “I did that [at the Schladming world championships] for the first time and felt like, yeah, I get it.”
A Five-Peat in Slalom?
Should Shiffrin win her fifth consecutive slalom title at Cortina on February 20, she would become the first ever five-time world alpine ski champion; no one else has won more than three in the same discipline. It would give her six world titles and eight world championship medals total, tying Lindsey Vonn for the most by an American alpine skier.
But Shiffrin is not one to focus on statistics and stated, “I don’t care about the five.”
Four years ago, she didn’t care about the three-peat either. And she was too sick at the 2019 world championships to care about whether or not she would win four slalom titles in a row then.
Instead, as always, it’s about the skiing.
Cortina’s slalom course is steep—steeper than most women’s slalom courses. And Shiffrin is looking forward to skiing it.
“I want to ski that hill the best that I can possibly ski it because we don't often come across a hill that [challenging],” she said. “I want to do it justice.”
As for winning five world championship gold medals in the row, Shiffrin is philosophical.
“There's a first for everything,” she said. “There's a first for winning five gold medals consecutively and there's also a first for not.”
More World Champion Medals?
That said, Shiffrin is a favorite to bring home at least a couple of medals—of any color—from the 2021 world championships. She has not finished lower than sixth in any race this season, and has stood on the podium four times, including two wins.
With two weeks of training since her last world cup, she is starting to get the repetition she needs to feel comfortable in variable snow conditions and to test more skis. Then, after the super-G on Tuesday, she will have another week of training before the GS and slalom races in Cortina.
But her approach to the 2021 world championships remains the same as it has since Nyman’s pep talk eight years ago.
“You ski a big event, you go for a medal, you go for gold,” she said. “It doesn’t always happen, that’s for sure, but that’s the goal. That’s the only tactic. That’s what literally every single person there is thinking, whether they have the ability or not.
“It really just boils down to who brings the best confidence, best preparation, and best skiing on race day.”