America’s next teen sports phenom is on the rise and her name is Mikaela Shiffrin. She’s not a tennis player, golfer, or figure skater; she’s an alpine ski racer. Remember ski racing? Although most Americans only blink at it every four years, Shiffrin’s been making leaps in the sport in the run up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, racking up wins on the World Cup circuit (aka the World Series of skiing) and taking titles from alpine aces 10 years her senior. In February, the then 17-year-old Shiffrin became the youngest woman in 39 years to win an alpine World Championship gold.
Now, the Vail, Colorado native is poised to make the U.S. Alpine Olympic Team and compete in her first games in Sochi next February. While Shiffrin has a good chance of winning a medal and gaining American household recognition, she modestly claims that neither are her top goals for the impending Olympics; rather, she hopes to better her skill and raise the profile of her high-adrenaline sport.
Like most successful alpine racers, Mikaela Shiffrin started skiing young—at two years old, she was already practicing on plastic skis in her driveway. She’s frequently referred to as a ski prodigy. Still, her path to Olympic medal contender is atypical for most child prodigies. Though her parents, Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin, have ski racing backgrounds—dad raced for Dartmouth and mom races masters—Shiffrin’s meteoric rise toward the Olympics was not a blueprint planned years in advance. Mikaela started racing just because that’s what many kids who grow up near mountains do.
“I got into skiing because it was a social thing. One of my best friends was on the race team, I joined, I just loved skiing,” says Shiffrin, who has an affable adolescent demeanor off the slopes. “The first time I thought about competing at a world class level was about 12 years old. It was more of a dream than anything.”
She paired that dream to a steadfast commitment to improvement and a genuine passion for the slopes. Shiffrin decided to study all facets of her sport—from strategizing on how to get a better start to analyzing videos of the best racers in the world—in order to get faster. “If I won by half a second one day, I want to win by a second the next day,” she says. “You can’t just say ‘I want to win by more’ and just make it happen. I comes down to how you’re skiing, where you can make up time, and how your tactics and technique will help you make up that time…I’ve been surrounded by coaches and people who always place a lot of importance on improving, and the journey, and making skiing my art—really making a study of it.”
She even adopted an unconventional approach to skipping less important junior races, two-timed runs, to get in more training. “Why take a day to ski two-course runs when you can get 15 [runs]?,” she recalls. As a young racer, Shiffrin kept winning competitions and setting new goals in the sport until, one day, competing at a world-class level suddenly seemed like a reasonable aim.
Even then, her father was pragmatic. “Driving to a ski race with my dad, I asked him the earliest age I would be able to race in a World Cup. He did calculations and was telling me all these facts and criteria for racing NorAms and Europa Cups and then maybe, World Cup. I didn’t really listen to any of that, but what I got out of the conversation was that, if everything went exceptionally well, I could probably start World Cup at 15. From that point I set a goal to race my first World Cup by 15.”
To appreciate Shiffrin’s accomplishments requires some understanding of her sport. Ski racing’s an interplay of many things: gravity, speed, time, wind and snow. There are four disciplines on a scale from technical to speed, with slalom the most technical and the downhill the fastest. Courses of different length and turns—tight to widely-spaced—are set with fiberglass gates on icy slopes. Speeds range from 30 to 90 mph, creating jet- fighter like forces of 5-8 Gs. In Mikaela’s strongest discipline, slalom, she can hit more than one gate a second, finishing turns before reaching the poles, already looking several gates down the mountain.
Winning is determined by the slimmest of margins. In the 2010 Olympic downhill, nine-hundredths of a second separated U.S. bronze medalist Bode Miller from the gold. Twelve finishers were within tenths of a second of victory.
Donning helmets and thin speed suits, racers strive for the best combination of technique (skiing clean arcs) and tactics—where to risk a tighter line or back off momentarily. Going from an arc to a skid costs tenths of a second. Taking too wide a line drains time; too tight can launch one into the safety fences. Generally, the racer who finds that near perfect balance of power and finesse, rocketing down the course with the tightest line and the least amount of mistakes without crashing, wins.
When it all comes together, like Shiffrin’s blistering World Cup slalom title winning run, it appears graceful and exhilarating. When it doesn’t, a run can unravel with chaotic consequences. (Who can forget Lindsey Vonn dangling from a Medevac helicopter after her 2013 season-ending crash?) Most great racers peak in their early 30s, connecting the highest level of experience to physical conditioning.
The sport’s challenges, and the extremely small number of skiers who make it that far, make Shiffrin’s teenage accomplishments all the more remarkable. Circling back to her father’s practicality, the odds for a promising junior racer ever reaching a World Cup start house are slim. Just a handful may make the U.S. alpine developmental team. From the D team, one still has to rise through the C and B teams for one of several A team slots. Only then would a racer likely get a chance at a World Cup berth, from the very back of the start list.
Shiffrin got that chance in 2011 at age 15. Starting 40th in a Lienz, Austria slalom, she posted the fastest time of the day in her second run, finishing third. By December 2012 she’d won her first World Cup race in Sweden. If that were her only accomplishment of that season, it would have been phenomenal. She kept going.
In early 2013, she won two more World Cup races. Then her first World Championship gold in Schladming, Austria. Finally, in the last slalom race of the season, Shiffrin came from behind to clinch the World Cup slalom title, snatching it away from one of the world’s best skiers, the 28-year-old Slovenian Tina Maze. In the finish area, both Maze and Shiffrin shared expressions of astonishment.
If Shiffrin heads to the Olympics in Sochi, it will be at a strong moment for alpine skiing in the States. Historically, the sport has been dominated by Europeans, but over the last several years, the U.S. has repositioned itself to be one of the world’s best teams. The momentum started building with Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn’s 2008 sweep of the World Cup overall titles (the first in 25 years), and continued through the 2010 Winter Olympics, where the U.S. Alpine Team won more medals than any other team—including the normally dominant Austrians, who only won four medals overall. And judging from this year’s Alpine World Championships, the Americans are on track for another strong Games—in addition to Shiffrin’s gold, American Ted Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three championship titles. By the end of the World Cup season Ligety had beaten the Austrians by nearly three second margins. In ski racing that’s something akin to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game.
In fact, Shiffrin could very well go into the 2014 Olympics as part of the most accomplished U.S. alpine ski squad ever. “Last season was historic for the U.S., and the depth of the Ski Team is actually going to make Olympic selections tough,” says Ski Racing Magazine editor-in-chief Sarah Tuff Dunn. The team has four returning Olympic champions in Miller, Vonn, Ligety, and Julia Mancuso, and proven competitors like speed specialists Laurenne Ross, Stacey Cook, and Alice McKennis.
“I’m hoping this Olympics sparks an interest in the U.S. for ski racing,” Shiffrin says. “We are recognized in Europe, but it would be great if there was more recognition here.”
Culturally the U.S. Alpine Ski Team is unlike the somewhat robotic and uniform European teams. All business when it comes to training and racing, off the course and out of the gym U.S. ski racers are fairly unassuming compared to other elite athletes, and give off a friendly ski bum quality. “What’s unique about U.S. alpine is we’re such individuals, everyone’s so different, but we still work as a team and one unit,” says Shiffrin.
As much as Shiffrin is seen as the future of U.S. alpine skiing, she views the future as much bigger than her, “In these upcoming years, it’s not going to be one or two individuals as the face of the U.S. ski team, it’s going to be everybody. Success is everywhere. Going into the Olympics with that spirit is exciting.”
“There’s so much more to accomplish. I will always look to where I can go,” she says. “I want to become a faster skier, a five event skier, and someday win the World Cup overall title and all five event titles in the same year, something no skier's ever accomplished."