Showtime for Shiffrin
April 1, 2012
Mikaela Shiffrin is like any other 17-year-old ski racer.
Almost immediately after the race, she heads straight into the base lodge to pry off the ski boots that, at this point in the season, have manifested into a painfully tight extension of the foot. She laughs with friends, doles out a high-five or two and celebrates the day’s efforts on the hill.
But unlike every other 17-year-old ski racer, Shiffrin will walk back outside and be swarmed by a barrage of coaches, advisors, young girls hoping for an autograph and hungry media asking tough questions.
As one of the world’s best ski racers, it comes with the territory.
Picking up a podium result in Lienz, Austria, a second straight national championship in slalom and rookie-of-the-year accolades on the World Cup, it was another season of milestones surpassed for the young U.S. Ski Team member, who will be bumped up to the A-Team next year.
Keep in mind Shiffrin is a junior in high school.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure – being a rookie and having the results that I’ve had. But I put so much more pressure on myself than anyone puts on me,” Shiffrin said. “If I cave under the pressure, it’s because I was thinking too much about what I wanted, not what anyone else expects of me. That’s something I’ve been battling with all season, so I just try not to expect anything and put my best turns out there.”
Shiffrin has been splitting time between Eagle-Vail, where she relaxes with her family, Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, where she attends school, and Europe, where she now races on the World Cup during the winter.
“Europe was amazing. I’ve loved Europe ever since I went there as a little kid, and I was so excited to get back there. But I was for-sure ready to come home,” Shiffrin said. “I enjoyed every second I was over there with all the new, crazy experiences. … Standing on the podium in Lienz next to some of my biggest idols, Marlies (Schild) and Tina (Maze), that was really unbelievable for me. I still can’t really believe it.”
The emerging phenom has, by design, remained focused on slalom and GS this season, and it’s not yet been determined if her success in the technical disciplines will translate into wins in the sport’s marquee event – downhill. So Shiffrin will begin training super-G in the southern hemisphere this summer with the inevitable addition of speed events on the horizon.
“Right now, I’m really focused on GS and slalom. It’s been my choice, as well as my coaches, and they think it’s best that I keep developing my technique in GS and slalom,” Shiffrin said. “This summer, I’m actually going to start training some super-G, which will help me get really comfortable with going fast. Next year, it’ll still be GS and slalom as my main focus, but in the next couple years, I’ll be integrating more into speed.”
Certainly, the U.S. Ski Team considers Shiffrin a long-term prospect, so the coaching staff will continue to be patient and work on whatever schedule benefits her goals over the long haul. Nevertheless, everyone knows at some point she’ll have to get more comfortable racing on the big boards.
“It’s not pressure,” said U.S. Ski Team women’s technical head coach Roland Pfeifer. “But in order to get fast in GS you have to get involved in some super-G training. And that’s what we’re going to start in May. With the speed team, we’re going to have a speed weekend. And there, she’s going to learn from the speed girls, the speed coaches and also from me how to ski super-G fast.”
For a coach like Pfeifer – who served as the program director for Vorarlberg Ski Team, a prominent feeder program to the Austrian Ski Team – when it comes to ski racing, there isn’t a whole lot he hasn’t seen over the years. He acknowledges there is something very special about Shiffrin, and it starts with what’s between her ears.
“When I talk to her about skiing, it feels like I’m talking to a fellow Austrian coach – a guy who has been around 20 years of coaching,” said Pfeifer. “That’s the knowledge of her skiing. She studies her opponents, and she’s coming up with comments that really show what’s good and what’s bad about skiing. That’s the biggest difference between her and other athletes.”
Shiffrin was well accompanied during her first season of racing full-time overseas. Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mother, advisor, best friend and No. 1 fan, was there for every stage of the trip.
“It was busy. We traveled a lot. We rented a car, and every single place that we went to was, of course, a new place,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “But it was a very awesome experience. All the traveling was really educational for her.”
Mikaela has been managing her schoolwork through the Burke Mountain Academy, and her mother said hitting the books has actually become a relaxing escape – something totally unrelated to ski racing, for those moments when life as professional athlete becomes exhausting.
Academics haven’t been overlooked by the Shiffrins. In fact, there were times during last summer when Mikaela didn’t train as much as her coaches might have liked because she was busy studying. On the curriculum this year are calculus, chemistry and German, the latter of which just might come in handy being a pro ski racer living in Europe, as the fluent Lindsey Vonn has demonstrated.
Mikaela hasn’t ruled out the possibility of higher education, although it’s safe to say it won’t be the traditional “college experience.” The U.S. Ski Team has educational opportunities for post-high school athletes, and her mother imagines Mikaela might go into an entirely different field after her racing career – perhaps medicine, which runs in the family.
The Shiffrins, who are rounded out by father Jeff and older brother Taylor, have lived in the Vail Valley on and off for most of Mikaela’s life. The family lived outside Hanover, N.H., while Jeff Shiffrin was working as an anesthesiologist at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medial Center. That’s how they developed a connection to the eastern race scene and Burke, one of the top ski academies in the country. But ultimately, they missed Vail and decided to move back a few years ago.
Every devoted ski-race parent dreams of their son or daughter growing up to become one of the best in the world, but it wasn’t until Mikaela cleaned up the slalom and GS two years ago at Topolino (which is essentially the world championship for J3s) that the Shiffrins realized they might have something very special on their hands.
“She was really ripping, so we were kind of thinking, well, we’ll see what happens,” said Eileen Shiffrin. “Then she started competing against some of the fast FIS girls in NorAms the following season. … But until you really get to the World Cup level – I mean, that’s a whole other level of intensity and expertise. So seeing how she actually stacked up in Aspen last year, that was a big moment too.”
Without question, the world is changing very fast for Mikaela Shiffrin, but the 17-year-old seems to be keeping pace in more ways than one.
“I just want her to be happy and successful enough to be happy and have a family or do whatever she wants,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “I want the same thing everyone wants for their children: for them to grow up and have some security. If it happens to be ski racing for the time being, that’s great.”
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