Skier trying to add downhill and super-G without letting her slalom and giant slalom su≠er
For the past four seasons Mikaela Shiffrin dazzled the alpine world with her dominance in slalom and the innocent exuberance of her personality, but this season she seems poised to become an even bigger star on the slopes of Europe’s great ski resorts. If she remains healthy and progresses as she hopes, she will emerge as one of the contenders for a prize even more prestigious than Olympic medals: the World Cup overall title.
In previous seasons the Vail Valley skier focused on slalom and giant slalom, having raced only twice in “speed races,” a pair of super-Gs last season. This season she is expected to race regularly in super-G and downhill as well. If she does well it could put her in the fight for the overall this season — especially since two of the three active racers who are past winners — Lindsey Vonn and Anna Veith (formerly Fenninger) are missing the start of the season with injuries.
“It’s amazing, she’s 21, Olympic champion, world champion,” said former World Cup star Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria. “What I especially like is the way she skis. The technique is totally perfect. It’s so precise. And now, it’s cool that she is doing the speed events, too. You in the U.S., you have Lindsey and now you get Mika, who can also break record after record.”
There are massive stamina challenges associated with Shiffrin’s move into the speed events. When she was only racing slalom and giant slalom, she essentially raced half of the World Cup schedule, allowing her to rest and train on the weekends when the speed skiers were racing.
“It’s a logistical nightmare, trying to do all of the events,” said Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who assists U.S. Ski Team staff in coaching her. “And we’re new to it.”
Shiffrin won’t necessarily compete in all 37 World Cup races. Some speed event weeks, she might only race super-G, and she might skip a speed week here or there to rest or train in GS and slalom so she doesn’t lose her sharpness in those events. But whatever way it plays out, she will have a huge expansion of her program.
“I’m tired of thinking about how tired we’re going to be,” Shiffrin said. “It’s not like nobody’s ever done it before. But it’s new for me, and it’s like you have to recalibrate every time you try to reach a new milestone. You have to figure out how much energy you have to spend on every little thing. I’ve always been one to put every ounce of energy into every single day. (Now) I have to run at 70 percent for a little bit — still putting 100 percent of effort into the races but not putting 100 percent of my emotional, physical, mental energy into everything.”
Shiffrin won three World Cup slalom titles since 2013, winning world championships gold medals in 2013 and 2015 and Olympic gold in 2014. She fell short last season because a knee injury cost her two months of racing. In addition to picking up points in the speed events this season, she wants to challenge for the podium in GS more often. She has 21 slalom victories and 26 podiums versus one win and six podiums in GS.
“If I’m going to do this, I want to do it as well as I can, and I know that I can ski fast in speed,” Shiffrin said. “I know I can win GS races and win the GS (season title). I like that challenge. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be the best skier in the world, not specifically the best slalom skier in the world.”
The trick will be to develop as a speed skier without letting her slalom and giant slalom suffer.
“I’m optimistic, but I can feel the girls breathing down my neck in slalom,” Shiffrin said. “I feel like my skiing is good enough to win, but I also feel I can use more consistency, so we’re trying to fit in as much training as possible without sacrificing the speed races. It’s like, ‘What can I get out of the GS without being too greedy in one particular area and managing the energy?”
It helps that one of her coaches loves her the way only a mother can.
“She goes through all of the emotional stress that I go through, because she’s my mom and I feel like she’s biologically required to feel everything that I’m feeling,” Shiffrin said. “She also feels her own emotions. Sometimes it’s like the umbilical cord is still attached.”
Better than anyone else, her mother knows what to say and when to say it. But she’s only human.
“Usually if I have to say something to Mikaela that I know she needs to hear, and I’m mulling it in my head and waiting, eventually I’ll say it and I’ll try to pick a time,” Eileen said. “But maybe some things are better left unsaid, and I say them when I shouldn’t. Usually what happens is that if I say it, Mikaela thinks about it, and even if she gets mad at first, she oftentimes will think about it and come back and say, ‘Yeah, I know I have to do that.’ I’m definitely not always right, and sometimes I’m a little bit overreactionary.”
But Shiffrin is fortunate to have her mother as she embraces the stresses that come with being a four-event racer. It’s a huge challenge, but she’s up for it.
“I’m hoping that no matter how hard anybody else works, as long as I work harder, I’m still going to come out on top,” Shiffrin said. “I see a lot of really complacent athletes, and I’m really worried that I’m going to get complacent, that the more I win the more complacent I’ll be, and the more I’ll fight back when my mom tells me, ‘Get back on track.’ My biggest fear is that some day I’m just going to stop trying hard. That’s one thing I really admire Lindsey for. No matter what she does, no matter how many directions she is going in, she has not stopped working hard.”
Mikaela Shiffrin reacts after winning the women’s World Cup slalom in Killington, Vt., last Sunday.