Gate Talk: NCAA champ Taylor Shiffrin’s 1st season with Loveland Ski Club
November 17, 2016
It's never easy to balance school with skiing. By now, Taylor Shiffrin has it down to a science.
At 24 years old, Shiffrin — the older brother of Olympic gold medalist Mikaela — has spent most of his life splitting time between intense gate training and intense schoolwork. Like his sister, the EagleVail native attended Burke Mountain Academy as a teen, where he learned to juggle math, science, social studies and the rest with near-daily skiing. It set him up perfectly for success when he graduated, moved back to his home state and joined the elite University of Denver ski team.
This past season as a senior, he won his second NCAA Skiing Championship with DU, earning major points in the same slalom and giant slalom events his sister dominates on the World Cup circuit.
"Their skiing program is historically very good," Shiffrin said of his choice to ski with DU. "If you were on the ski team for four years in a row, the years when they've had a team, you have a 100-percent chance of winning a national championship. Every single athlete who has skied on that varsity team has won at least one national championship, if not more."
Now, Shiffrin is balancing an MBA program at DU's Daniels College with his brand-new gig as youth team coach for Loveland Ski Club. Why Loveland? It just made sense: It's where the DU team trained his entire collegiate career, and it happens to be close to Denver. He splits his time between a downtown apartment on weekdays and his family home in Vail on weekends — honestly an easier driving scheduled than he had as an athlete, he admitted.
"From a logistics standpoint, it helps that Loveland is only 45 minutes away," Shiffrin said. "Another club would be doable, but it would be more time consuming."
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From skiing to school to life, that's how Shiffrin's brain works: a balancing act between passion and hard work. He brings that mentality to LSC's weekend-only youth program, when he coaches 13 athletes between ages 10 and 14 with another young coach, Amber Gates
On the first day of real-live snow, Shiffrin took time away from training his new Golden retriever, nine-week-old Simba, to talk about his new role at LSC, his skiing philosophy and why his sister's "secret" to success isn't very secret.
Summit Daily News: Let's start at the top: It's finally snowing. How excited are you and your athletes?
Taylor Shiffrin: We're pretty excited. We've been skiing for the past two weekends, so it's been great to meet them, get to know them, see what they can do on the snow. They're all very athletic and have a strong natural ability. They're all really coachable, which has been very nice.
SDN: Has the lack of natural snow derailed your training plan?
TS: I wouldn't say derailed — we've just had to modify it. I still ran through the progressions that myself or my sister go through when we get back on snow. Those drills can apply to any level of skiing, including the very best in the world. They're very effective tools when you get back on your skis.
SDN: What kind of drills are they doing to get back in the groove?
TS: The first thing we do is get back on snow and let everyone rip some free runs. Everyone is excited and just wants to ski. From that, we do some slow, very diligent drills. I have no idea what the names are — Mikaela and I just did them — but they're traversing drills, balance drills, body drills. They cover all the fundamentals of the skiing so that you can work on any issues before we get into gates.
SDN: This is your first year coaching for Loveland. Why this club and mountain?
TS: First of all, I've trained with DU at Loveland for four years. My family is good friends with (LSC executive director) John Hale, and he's been very accommodating with our skiing pursuits. He's an awesome and influential figure, so I felt like I owed him when he gave me a call. My first reaction was, "I'd love to join." I had to make sure I could do it logistically — that I had the time — but I knew that I wanted to do this for John. Loveland Ski Area and John have done so much for us and the sport.
SDN: You're personally coming off an NCAA championship title with DU. Talk about that: What's it take to compete and win at the Division I level?
TS: I would have to say focus. It's a diligent practice, and those drills that we do right now are applicable to someone who's on the snow for their first time to someone like Mikaela, who is literally the best in the world at what she does. It's a matter of having the mindset, and that's something that Mikaela excels at. Our parents built those into our habits: having a diligent practice, working on progressing our abilities, and that was it with DU. I was at the same point as a lot of other U-14s when I was that young and the only differentiating factor was that we kept at it. None of us had a particularly inherit ability to outperform — we just worked harder over an extended period of time.
A support system is also absolutely vital. The support that John, Burke (Mountain Academy), friends and family — everyone — gave to us is critical. As hard as all of us work, we wouldn't be able to do it on our own. You need that support system.
SDN: What's the most important thing you learned from your coaches at DU?
TS: (Pause.) That's a long, long list. Over the course of four years you learn a lot. I would say that one of the first things is being studious — being a student of the sport. I didn't learn it exclusively from Andy (LeRoy) or Tyler (Shepherd), the coaches at DU, but I honed that ability while I was there. It led to continued success, and that goes hand in hand with being a student athlete. I can't definitively say that's why many sports recruit out of college, but it's indicative that student athletes are taught to be truly passionate about their sport and study it, as a profession and a passion. I know that's what Mikaela does.
It's about more than taking runs aimlessly and repeatedly. If you practice something for 10,000 hours but you aren't paying attention — aren't being a student — you're learning wrong. If Peyton Manning spent 10,000 hours throwing a football wrong, he might be really good, but he'd be really good at throwing a football wrong.
The second piece is a supportive team. Not only did I have a support system for me, I learned that, in college, you are on a team. It's vital that you're supportive of that team because it elevates everyone's ability. It was always a very competitive team, but it was always friendly competition, and that promoted our growth and ability to perform.
SDN: How will you transfer all of your racing experience — with DU, with Burke Mountain — to Loveland?
TS: I'm trying to instill all of those same habits that I had from an early age. I can already see that many of my athletes already see this, which is fortunate. I think the youth from today are starting from a better standpoint than previous generations, in that they're setting the right goals and realizing that the process is the most important part, rather than the destination. If you focus on the process, my sister and parents and dozens of levelheaded people have said, you will attain your goals. If you don't, it's much less likely that you will attain them. That's why we ran through two weekends of drills and we'll continue with that this weekend. We might step into some gates, but if you want to improve quickly and to the best of your ability, the way to do that is to be patient, focused and diligent. You have to know what you're trying to achieve, what you're trying to gain that gives you a good basis for your career.
SDN: While you're coaching, your sister is traveling the world on the World Cup circuit. Do your athletes ask about her and how she skis?
TS: Yes, absolutely, all the time, and that's understandable. It's very smart, to be honest. I'm quite certain that the entire world is asking those same questions, trying to figure out what she's doing. As much as I want to say, "I know Mikaela has this one secret that's making her fast," it's not true. If you've read the articles about her, she's said there isn't one secret. It's more about how you work and how hard you work. There's no shortcut to becoming the best in the world. That quote-unquote "secret" is patience, practice and working hard.
SDN: What are your big goals for the LSC group this year?
TS: First and foremost, to make sure they have fun. That sounds cliché, but it's true. The single-greatest thing I'll take from ski racing is having fun, and I'm sure Mikaela or any other ski racer will say the same. We've all developed great friendships with each other and the community as a whole, and that's spread across the world. You can travel across the world and share this commonality with anyone skiing. I'm trying to emphasize that community side — help the kids be enthralled with skiing — because that will be impactful for the rest of their lives.
After that — after enjoying themselves — I want to make sure that they are grasping that goal of working hard and being diligent, etcetera, etcetera. That hard work ethic will propel them in all aspects of their lives. Maybe that is the secret: succeeding with that level of work ethic is contingent on you having fun. It's a lot easier to do well if you're having fun.
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