By Murat Oztaskin | February 12, 2018 | People Feature
With her overall World Cup win in Aspen, Colorado native Mikaela Shiffrin is officially alpine skiing’s queen—and she’s just getting started.
“I knew that I could do it if I just let myself ski the way I wanted to ski,” says Mikaela Shiffrin—seen here at last year’s World Cup in Crans-Montana, Switzerland—on winning the 2017 FIS Ski World Cup overall title, alpine racing’s top prize, in Aspen this March.
Ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin won the overall title in the 2017 FIS Ski World Cup Finals, which took place in Aspen this March, while she was taking a nap. “It was sort of anticlimactic because you think you will have some super-epic, miraculous race and then win it,” she says. “And all of that emotion comes to a climax at the finish line, and the crowd’s cheering…” As it happened, the Vail native won competitive alpine skiing’s top prize on points, four days after her 22nd birthday, when her biggest competitor, 26-year-old Slovenian Ilka Stuhec, pulled out of her final race.
“My mom came into my room and said, ‘Hey, you won the overall, congrats!’” says Shiffrin. “I was totally disoriented, thinking, What are you talking about?” “But that’s sort of how it happens with me,” she adds. “My life is centered around rest and napping and sleeping, and anything that’s not is focused around skiing and food and working out and family. So I feel that was the best way for it to happen. I found out, and then I was like, all right, let’s move on, because I have two more races left this season.”
Still, she agrees, anticlimactic or no, there are worse ways to wake up. Seen as a metaphor—“she can do it in her sleep”—her win reveals two truths about Shiffrin’s career. At only 22 years old, in a sport where athletes tend to peak in their late 20s, she is considered the best female racer in the world. Even before her overall win in March, Shiffrin became the youngest-ever Olympic slalom champion, at 18, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She won slalom gold in the past three World Championships, added a silver in giant slalom this year, and was the four-time World Cup slalom champion from 2013 to 2016 after breaking onto the circuit at the age of 15. (She came in second this year, beat out by 0.24 seconds by Slovakian Petra Vlhova.)
While it took Lindsey Vonn, one of Shiffrin’s idols and the most decorated women’s skier in history, 44 races to place a top-three finish, it took Shiffrin just eight. And although Shiffrin holds 31 World Cup victories to Vonn’s record 77, Vonn had only four when she was Shiffrin’s age. She can do it in her sleep because she is a phenom with preternatural talent. But what makes her the world’s best is how she has honed that talent with what even the most seasoned skiers and commentators can’t believe she possesses at her age: flawless technique.
Shiffrin following her gold-medal slalom win at the FIS Ski World Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado, in 2015.
It is a product of an extraordinary work ethic, her preparation-to-performance mindset, her grueling training schedule and, in between, when and how she rests—meaning she can do it in her sleep because her sleep, like every other aspect of training, is crucial to her performance. All together, it’s that preparation and discipline that has allowed her to dominate in slalom, winning by two or three seconds in races whose margins are typically decided by a tenth or a hundredth. It’s also allowed her to continue to improve in giant slalom, as well as the speed disciplines, super-G and downhill, and become the youngest overall World Cup winner since 2003, cementing her transition into an all-around skier.
She doesn’t naturally have a “killer instinct,” she says. Rather, her competitiveness manifests itself in a fidelity to constant improvement. It’s almost always what she’s thinking about. Even after her greatest achievement to date, she says, “the biggest feeling I’m having right now is to not rest on my laurels.” Shiffrin first acquired her slalom form learning to ski through the trees in Vail, where she was born and where her father, a doctor, and her mother, a nurse, introduced her and her older brother to the slopes. The inception of her racing mentality may well have started the first day she remembers on the mountain, a powder day following the biggest storm of the season.
“I was 5 years old. I got stuck in the snow because I was used to sitting forward on my skis and on my edges. [In the powder] that just dug me deeper,” she says. “I was just drowning in snow. My dad had to pull me out by my feet. He said, ‘In powder you have to be more centered, you can’t be so forward. And not so much edge.’ What I got out of that was, ‘Sit [back] and don’t turn.’ So I just went straight down the mountain, so fast. It took the rest of the group 15 minutes to get down. I was like, ‘What took you guys so long?’” She entered her first race the following year.
The family moved to New Hampshire when Shiffrin was 7, and she followed her brother to Burke Mountain Academy, in Vermont, a few years later. She had taken so well to Burke and its coaches and students that once the family moved back to Vail when she was 14, she grew depressed and unmotivated. That winter term, Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin sent their daughter back to Burke. “That was the beginning of what really helped develop me into the skier I am today,” she says.
Shiffrin during her first slalom run at the 2017 FIS Ski World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where she won her third consecutive slalom world championship.
It was also emblematic of her parents’ unconditional support. Both grew up skiing and ski racing, and fostered the same love in their children. Eileen had taken time off from work to raise her kids and be with them day to day. When they increasingly spent their days skiing, she inevitably started to coach them. To this day, her mom’s advice carries as much weight for Shiffrin as anyone else’s, including her roster of coaches. “She travels with me on the World Cup circuit,” she says. “And we’ve grown together, me as a skier and her as a coach. She is always a couple steps ahead of me, just enough to help me improve and to see the things that I need to do better. I have several other coaches now, but she’s the one who’s been there since I was born.”
Shiffrin still lives with her parents in Vail, in the house where she grew up. Her hometown is also home base for training, between the mountain, her local gym, and home, where she takes her daily nap. This summer is six days a week of double sessions: a three-hour workout in the morning, followed by lunch, rest, and another two-and-a-half-hour workout in the afternoon. Afterward she’ll spend time with her family, see her friends, watch movies. But even in the off-season, she’s usually in bed by 9 or 9:30. On-snow work resumes in July, in New Zealand, where she’ll train for several weeks, and then again in Chile in September. From there, the start of the season is just around the corner.
The two weeks following her win in March is the only downtime Shiffrin will have all year. She spent her first day as overall champion skiing Aspen Mountain, the first time she skied anything “besides the actual race hill, which was really fun.” She also had a bit of leisure time in town. “I love the vibe that you get in Aspen,” she says. “It’s so cool and quaint. It’s like a city but it’s just a tiny little thing.” But before long, it was back to training, with Shiffrin eager to relish in the results that would follow. “There are a million breakthroughs you can make on any given day,” she says. “I’m just super motivated by training days where I can make that big improvement that I’ve been trying to get forever, whatever that might be. And I’ve always had the same focus, that same kind of motivation, since I was 12 or 13. Those same things still work.”
One recent fixation was “fluidity,” which she tried to incorporate into her skiing last season. “I have been known to be a little bit stiff sometimes,” she says, “and that keeps me from getting that little bit of extra speed.” The best thing to develop fluidity is being able to free ski, Shiffrin says, whether by herself or with family or friends. But given her training schedule, that’s a joy more rare than one might expect from a skier who’s on-mountain nearly 300 days a year. This year, her focus is on gaining strength and power in her turns, and increasing her speed. “There’s always something to be working on.” While her dedication to improvement is responsible for her success, it also ends up being the lens through which she views that success.
“I stopped trying to understand [accomplishment] and [instead] just moved forward,” she says. “Winning never really sinks in. After every race I win, I’m on top of the world for 15 seconds, and then it feels like, okay, I only did what I’ve been training for all year and for the past 15 years. It’s just what I’ve been practicing. In that sense, it’s not something that I should celebrate. I knew before that I could do it if I just let myself ski the way I wanted to ski. And that’s how it’s been with all of my biggest successes—less of a surprise and more of setting out to do a job and being able to get the job done.” In that way, Shiffrin celebrates her successes in advance—in the gym, on the training course, even asleep during her afternoon nap.
Editor's note: This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2017 print edition of Aspen Peak.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES; ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AGENCE ZOOM/GETTY IMAGES; ERICH SPIESS/ASP/RED BULL