Mikaela Shiffrin is already making history, and the World Cup ski season is barely a month old.
Over the holiday weekend, the 20-year-old EagleVail native won two World Cup slaloms in Aspen — her win on Saturday was the first slalom title for an American at Aspen — after taking a nasty fall in the final stretch of the giant slalom on Friday. If she hadn’t fallen (and she rarely does), she might have easily won three events in a row to begin the season nearly 200 points ahead of her nearest competitor in the World Cup overall standings.
But she doesn’t deal in what-ifs these days. She leaves that to the newspapers and race fans and social-media masses, including her 59,700 Twitter followers and ski racing’s own governing body. The day after her GS near-miss, a homepage headline on the official FIS website read “Lara Gut gets giant slalom win after Shiffrin falls.” By now, the expectations will always be there for the young, nearly flawless technical specialist — when you don’t win, the world will wonder why.
That’s what an Olympic gold medal at 18 years old will do, even if folks in Shiffrin’s home country hardly recognize her on the street. She’s not quite Lindsey Vonn — yet — but she still seems to spend as much time hosting reporters and photographers as she does training these days. Again, it comes with the territory.
Yet it’s hardly affected her performance. The Burke Mountain Academy grad is still on top of the overall standings after the GS fall, and that’s right where she wants to be this season. For the first time this week, she’ll break out of the slalom gates for several World Cup super-G races. She hasn’t committed to a downhill quite yet, but she spent the summer and early winter training for speed on full-length courses.
It’s a major change of pace for someone more familiar with razor-sharp edging, and she couldn’t be more excited to simply get out there. Before leaving for the Lake Louise super-G, she sat down with the Summit Daily sports desk in her childhood playground of Vail — she considers it her home hill along with Burke Mountain in Vermont — to talk about the upcoming season, how she’s handling expectations and why a few downhill runs at Copper were the most fun she’s had on skis in years.
Summit Daily News: You just had back-to-back slalom wins in Aspen, where no U.S. skier has ever topped the slalom podium. How’s it feel to break the spell?
Mikaela Shiffrin: I was real excited with how that weekend went. Even the giant slalom, even though I didn’t finish, I felt like I had a really good race. I was attacking, so it’s something new for me to take that much risk that I actually fell. Hopefully, I can take the same amount of risk in the next races without falling.
Of course, the slaloms were two of my best slalom races. To start off the season like that is very nice. I felt on point — probably even better. I was not expecting to win a race by three seconds (laughs). Going into that race, I was so nervous because I didn’t know where anyone else was, how they were skiing, how they stack up. All I kept hearing is that they were skiing really fast, and I don’t know if I’m fast enough. I guess I’m fast, but you never know until the first race. Finally, the first race has happened, and they went really, really well for me. Now the trick is putting it out of my head to keep moving forward.
SDN: Talk about entering Lake Louise — your first super-G — on top of the overall World Cup standings. Is that where you want to be this early in the season?
MS: It’s definitely going to be new, and that’s part of why I want to do it. Sometimes adding something different and new can be a little bit refreshing. I’m excited to change up the pace completely, and, if I can put some good skiing out there, if I can charge — I’ll be starting 31, not a bad start number — then I can maybe keep this momentum going and take it into the European side of the tour.
SDN: You’ve said in the past that you perform best as the underdog. You thrive there. How have you adjusted to make sure you’re still performing at your peak now that every race is under the microscope?
MS: Well, it’ll be interesting to see how I feel the day of the super-G race inspection and everything. Just because I won a couple of slaloms and had a good GS race doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily be fast I super-G. But, training has been going well and I have a little built of confidence there. I feel comfortable with the speed and comfortable on the skis, so all the signs point toward having a pretty good race. But, there are so many factors. I’ve never been there — I don’t have the experience on the hill. There are a bunch of things that have to fall into place. It takes a lot of work to get to the top and stay there, so right now with super-G I’m just kind of blindfolded.
SDN: Do the speed disciplines make you nervous at all? Your teammates, skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, know just how devastating — and common — injuries can be on the big course.
MS: I feel like I’ve taken a pretty methodical approach to speed so far, especially this past prep period and over the summer. I got quite a bit of time skiing over terrain and jumping and trying to go fast, practicing the tucks and all the different piece, the elements of speed. I’m not actually that nervous right now. I think I’ll be nervous on race day, but it’s interesting. I feel like what I don’t know doesn’t make me nervous, whereas I know what it takes to win a slalom race, and sometimes I wonder if I have it in me to keep doing that. For GS, I know how much work it has taken to get into the top 15 and then the top 7, and I still only have one GS win under my belt, even though I feel like I’m skiing well enough to win GS races.
SDN: That’s interesting — taking on a new discipline doesn’t make you nervous, but it’s because you don’t really have any expectations?
MS: Yeah, it’s just about the technique — stay in your tuck, be smooth through the turns. You know, theoretically I know what it takes to be fast. It’s just a matter of doing. It. But yes, I have no expectations for where I end up in the race. It’s just about putting good skiing out there.
SDN: What about the expectations other people are placing on you? How do those fit in the mix?
MS: There are definitely expectations. I think that without trying to put expectations on me or force it on me, my coaches are thinking, let’s really try to manage this well because it could end up being more than an event that she throws in every once in a while. That’s what I’m thinking too, but everyone has their own expectations, maybe thinking that I’ll be really good, or maybe thinking that I’m just a slalom skier going to feel it all out. I’m somewhere in between, thinking that, like I said, I know what to do to be fast. It’s just a little difficult to switch gears from slalom and GS to super-G, but, if I can make that switch, it could be really fun. That’s my biggest expectation — it’s going to be fun.
SDN: That brings up a good point: At this point in your career, when are you having the most fun on the slopes?
MS: You know, it’s funny because I just did a downhill race last week at Copper Mountain. The first race I was a little bit nervous, but the second race, I just kind of let that go and tried to ski as straight as I could. That was really fun. I have a lot of fun skiing slalom and GS, but it’s also kind of the normal for me now. Switching that up, skiing super-G and downhill a little over the past few weeks, it’s been a nice change. There’s so much more space between the gates that you can kind of shut your mind off, and after skiing through flushes and hairpins and doing slalom, you don’t have time to think, let alone react. With super-G and downhill, I feel like you have a bit of time to say, “Here I am in the course, this is where I need to be, this is what’s coming up.” Everything is in slow motion almost, even though it’s higher speeds.
SDN: Do those speed courses feel more like freeskiing then? Like you’re just out taking a few runs?
MS: Freeskiing on super-G skis is so fun (laughs). You’re just ripping down the mountain. You’re going fast, but those skis are so long and stable that you feel like you’re in slow motion. You just feel totally free, like you’re flying, which is pretty cool.
It’s definitely nice to have a change of pace, but it has been nerve-wracking prior to this past weekend because I was spending more time on speed skis and subsequently less time on my slalom skis. I was thinking that the less time I got with slalom, the less chance I’d have to do well in slalom because I just feel like it takes a lot of repetition in slalom gates to ski fast. I’ve been getting a lot less training there, so I was really nervous heading into these races, thinking I’ve been spreading out my training too much and my slalom might take a hit. Apparently it didn’t this weekend. We’ll see as we keep going. It’s important now, after good races this weekend, that I don’t become complacent.