The Washington Post
Shiffrin finds history ‘liberating,’ but chase never ends
Mikaela Shiffrin’s 28th birthday Monday came in the tiny European country of Andorra, tucked into the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It was to feature a quiet dinner with her mother, Eileen; her boyfriend, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde — the Norwegian downhill champion — and her longtime physiotherapist.
Ahead this week are the World Cup finals, the last races of what is Shiffrin’s 12th full season on the international stage. What they amount to, though, is a week-long exhale, well-earned at that. She has secured her fifth overall championship, her seventh title in her specialty of slalom, her second in giant slalom.
“That’s the most liberating feeling,” Shiffrin said Monday by phone.
Oh, one other thing: She will close the season having already secured the crowning achievement of a career full of crowning achievements. Over the weekend, she won a giant slalom in Are, Sweden, for her 86th World Cup victory, tying Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark for the most all time. The next day, she won a slalom to pass Stenmark with No. 87.
“That is also a very liberating feeling,” she said. “But as soon as I crossed the finish line, people started asking about 100. So it’s like, ‘Well, I guess this is how things go.’ ”
Shiffrin opens herself to unreasonable expectations because she so regularly accomplishes things no one else has. If Lindsey Vonn’s record for World Cup race wins by a woman was reachable — as it was in January, when Shiffrin won for the eighth time this season and the 82nd time in her career — then Stenmark could be caught and passed in that same season. If she could reach 87 victories by racking up 13 wins this season alone, then it’s completely within reason that 100 is in the offing. Shiffrin faces constant questions about what’s next because she keeps forcing recalibration of what’s possible.
“When I went into this season, I really did not think that this was going to be even a consideration,” Shiffrin said. “Somehow it has been, and now it’s happened. It feels like it’s a blink of an eye, but it’s not. It’s been a full season’s — or 10 seasons’ or 12 seasons’ — worth of work. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around it all.”
Join the club. But as Shiffrin gets older, she has an eye not just on 87 or 100 victories, or a sixth overall world title, or whatever statistical outlier she’ll produce next. Her skiing legacy would be secure if she retired before this weekend. So she decided to enhance it in another area: by hiring Karin Harjo to be her coach, instantly making Harjo one of the most prominent female coaches in a profession still dominated by men.
“Really the decision came down to the fact that if I could choose to have one thing be part of my legacy, it would be to highlight female coaching and make female coaches more visible,” said Shiffrin, whose mother has always been an integral part of her coaching staff. “. . . Having a female as my head coach — like, really leading the charge — as soon as I thought it, I was like: ‘ This has to happen. This would be the final thing that I want to accomplish the rest of my career.’ ”
This didn’t come about in the smoothest fashion. Shiffrin had been with her coach, Mike Day, for seven seasons. She said she made the decision to switch to Harjo around the time of last month’s world championships. “I didn’t take it lightly,” she said. She told Day leading into those races. Rather than stay on through the end of the season, Day left immediately.
“It was announced in a little bit of a turbulent fashion,” Shiffrin said. That week, she won a gold and two silvers at worlds.
Harjo, once an assistant with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association who had been working with the Canadian team, will be entrusted with ushering Shiffrin through the end of her career.
“Karin — not just as a female, first and foremost — she’s an incredible coach,” Shiffrin said. “She’s brilliant with technology and logistical planning, video analysis. She’s awesome on the hill. She builds a great team environment. Everything that I know of her is super positive.”
Harjo will begin her new job next month with a training camp in Norway — a training camp, right after the close of the season. Shiffrin has spent her entire adult life traveling the world and competing. She remains a training fanatic. The next Olympics — when she will again reappear in the mainstream American sporting consciousness — aren’t for nearly three years, but they are in the comfort of the Italian Alps, Cortina d’ampezzo, where Shiffrin has raced and won.
For all the angst surrounding her 0-for-beijing performance last year, she does have three
Olympic medals, more than any American woman Alpine skier other than Julia Mancuso’s four. Who knows how many World Cup victories she’ll have by then? She’ll be about to turn 31. Might Cortina be a finish line?
“I feel very good about skiing through those Olympics, but I think it’s too early to decide what would happen after,” she said. “So much of it is going to depend on how I actually feel in the basically next season. Is the motivation truly going to be there? I’m not fully sure. But I think so, because even right now when I think about racing, I get a little bit of a nervous heartbeat. And that shows me that the motivation is there.”
The motivation for No. 88, which could come this week. The motivation for 100? More likely the motivation for the next perfect turn, the next perfect race, which is still out there. Mikaela Shiffrin just turned 28 and yet, “My gut instinct is to tell people I’m 19.” Her 19-year-old self couldn’t have imagined 87 World Cup victories — or whatever new standard comes next.