KILLINGTON, Vermont — It’s the early part of Mikaela Shiffrin’s seventh year on the World Cup circuit, and at 22 years old aiming at her second Olympics, there was a buzz going around the ski racing world. More of a whispered question.
Is Shiffrin, universally acknowledged as the foremost technical skier in the world, finally coming down to earth a bit? Or is the rest of the women’s ski world catching up to her?
The reason this question arose comes from the start of this season when the one-time Burke Mountain Academy student headed over to the Molltal Glacier in Austria to prepare for the season opener, a giant slalom in Sölden. The day before the race, the International Association of Ski Journalists presented her with a trophy as Ski Racer of the Year, only the third time an American has been so honored. Only Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn have won this trophy, placing Shiffrin in very rarified air, especially for her age.
But some undoubtedly were wondering if the big award had jinxed her, for next day on a rutted course, Shiffrin placed second in the first run, then hit soft snow at the steep face on the second run, nearly fell, but recovered to finish off the podium with a fifth.
Veteran watchers of World Cup racing remember when any top-10 finish by an American woman was reason for cheering and an instant press release from the team. But not with Vonn and certainly not now with Shiffrin, a perfectionist and clearly one of the hardest-working athletes on the World Cup tour.
“I was a little bummed by it (the Sölden result), but not too much,” said Shiffrin, weeks later at Killington.
But two weeks later in the opening slalom of the season at Levi, Finland, in what had become “her” discipline, Shiffrin failed to win, losing by a tenth of a second to Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova.
What could “be wrong” with Mikaela, went the question around the World Cup. Was her equipment set-up wrong? Were nerves getting to her? Training mistakes? Or was it the nature of ski racing: Having won nearly half the slalom races she had run on World Cup against 30 other top racers in the world, how could such a streak keep going?
On Thanksgiving weekend, Mikaela skied her first races in North America at Killington, before a huge roaring home crowd. Despite enjoying such conditions — home, sun, great snow — Shiffrin says the home crowds make her nervous, as they did a year ago at Killington. This year she started the weekend relatively slowly for her, losing the giant slalom to Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg. Skiing second to last, she put on a dazzling second run, pulling ahead of Rebensburg’s time briefly, but falling back to lose the lead.
Before the next day’s slalom, Shiffrin explained how a fan’s note helped her relax: “I actually got an Instagram from a girl who said, ‘We’re not here to watch you win, we just support you; we’re so excited. I hope you don’t feel pressure from us.’ I read that letter and it made me feel so much better.”
The next day at Killington, another 15,000 fans packed the stands for the slalom to watch the duel between Shiffrin and her closest slalom rival, Vlhova. In the weeks before the Killington races, Vlhova had become a training partner for Shiffrin, and the two rivals pushed each other as no other slalom skiers on the circuit could possibly push them. Both are relatively young and both are quick, surefooted technical racers with a chance at winning every slalom and giant slalom they enter. And when they get on the training course together, forget the term “training” — the rivalry was highly intense as the two pushed each other to new heights of performance as the Olympic season took shape in these Vermont mountains.
Mikaela was of two minds about this: “She would have a really fast run, then I would have a really fast run. And I was fuming because I hate training with anyone who’s close to me.”
Her mother, Eileen, who acts as a coach and supporter for her daughter, even living with her at times on the circuit, said of rival Vlhova that sometimes, “Petra skis like Mikaela more than Mikaela skis like Mikaela.”
But that afternoon — Nov. 25 at Killington — Mikaela returned to her old familiar dominance, winning both runs of the slalom convincingly for a largemargin win of 1.64 seconds. The crowd was elated to have its “hometown hero” (though she now lives in Vail, Colo.) back with her pure dominant style that has placed her ahead in the overall World Cup by a huge margin.
“When I ski really good,” she said after the win, “it almost feels like I’m flying, and that’s what I felt like today, both runs.”
Like Bode Miller and Vonn, Shiffrin began her World Cup career as a tech — short for technical skier — slalom and GS. Of those two, slalom is by far her stronger suit. The speed events downhill and super-G require several differences — ski length, training hills, techniques, even psychology.
When tech ski racers declare they are ready to branch into the speed events, the reaction is usually, let’s wait and see. The results will do the talking. That’s about the reaction to Shiffrin when she entered the downhill race at Lake Louise in British Columbia for the week after Killington.
Though this would be her fourth downhill, most skiers, no matter how talented, require a few attempts at the discipline before breaking into the points. U.S. superstar Vonn — the world’s best woman racer — did not win a downhill until her 14th start.
But on Dec. 3, as the women warmed up to race, a fire in a substation put a hold on the race course for a couple of hours, and the start was moved down to a new spot on the shortened course. That may have been critical, for the top of the Lake Louise course is flat, in a downhiller’s parlance, requiring good gliding skills.
The lower part of the course is steeper with more technical high-speed turns. More to a slalom racer’s liking, perhaps? In the same race was Shiffrin’s German rival, Rebensburg, and other well-known downhillers.
Halfway down the course, Shiffrin’s split times showed she was skiing very fast, and she said: “I felt good in the technical turns, so I took a little more risk (taking a tighter line through a gate) and it paid off.”
Shiffrin had won her first downhill, perhaps by just the margin of her “risk,” beating Rebensburg by just 13 hundredths of a second.
Shiffrin was lucky with her technical start and the great clear light she had (some girls encountered fog) and made the wise decision to take a risk on course. But in the fullness of time, fans might see if she has succeeded in adding a powerful new dimension to an already imposing package. As of this writing, she and her coaches have not decided exactly how many events she will enter in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, but it could be all five — slalom, GS, super-G, downhill and the two-tiered hybrid event, slalom combined — one downhill paired with two slalom runs.
Pam Fletcher (Acton, Mass.), a 1980s World Cup downhiller who has raced several times on the Lake Louise course, said, “It was a perfect hill for her to cut her teeth on. It’s challenging enough, but it’s more forgiving than some courses. I’m sure it gave her a lot of confidence.”
Asked after the Lake Louise race whether she was seriously considering an Olympic downhill run, Shiffrin’s answer to reporters was non-committal. Yes, she would take the weeks ahead to see how her speed work developed, but of an Olympic downhill, she said: “I’m still sort of a risky investment there.”
It’s hard to tell that Shiffrin is the bundle of nerves she claimed to be at Killington in front of home crowds, especially watching her cold, surgical operations on snow. In the early years of competition, her preparation and talent made her feel so confident it kept her nerves at bay, she remembers.
“I always just felt excited, not nervous,” she said. “But this last season I got so nervous, I had to throw up.”
At Killington in the slalom on the second day, the race she crushed, no such problems were visible, despite the huge crowds. Aside from those screaming fans — including Burke and Quechee Ski Club alumni — were many relatives, most notably her 95-year-old grandmother, whom Mikaela is seen hugging in several TV shoots.
Her mother and U.S. coaches have provided a sports psychologist to help Shiffrin work through her nerves problem while on the road in Europe through a long, wearing season.
When she first appeared on the World Cup tour at age 15, she didn’t quite sense emotionally that she had arrived at the very top level of international ski competition. Almost since she began in lower-level competition, she had been light years ahead of her peers, so there was nothing jarring to her experience to continue the tradition of winning.
In a sport where margins of finish are often measured in hundredths of seconds, within a very few races, her margins in World Cup races began to widen, and typically she was winning slaloms by more than a second. Then by multiple seconds. By age 16 that season, she became the youngest girl ever to win a U.S. national championship.
By the next year she was winning multiple races and her national reputation did not merely grow — it skyrocketed.
By the next year, at age 18, she won a gold medal at the Sochi Olympics, She has won all three of the World Championships, and four of five World Cup slalom titles. Last year at World Cup Finals in Aspen, again before a hometown crowd, she clinched the ultimate title every competitor dreams about — the overall World Cup championship.
“Her work ethic is amazing,” Fletcher said. “She gets such precision in her turns, but one of the biggest parts of her success is her honesty. She really evaluates how well she is skiing, and every turn she executes.”
Mikaela’s father, Jeff, is an anesthesiologist who worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Hanover, N.H., when Mikaela was growing up. In her high school years, it seemed a natural choice to attend one of the many ski academies around New England, and she chose Burke in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It was here as she entered her teens that Mikaela’s extraordinary talents blossomed.
It was a time when ski racing was so natural to her that she didn’t have to think. “I was oblivious then,” she said. “Sometimes it’s better to be oblivious, but I’m not oblivious any more.”