Mikaela Shiffrin is ready for another shot at the World Cup overall title
This wasn’t quite the season Mikaela Shiffrin had in mind. And that’s just fine.
On Dec. 12, during an otherwise routine giant slalom training run in Are, Sweden, the 21-year-old native of nearby EagleVail made the first devastating mistake of her young ski career: She took a turn just a touch too hard and swirled into a safety net, hyperextending her knee. Later that day, the youngest slalom gold medalist in Olympic history confirmed through social media that she had torn her MCL — her first major injury since joining the FIS World Cup circuit at 15 years old — and would be out of competition for at least a few weeks during rehab, recovery and, in an oddly fortuitous turn, the Christmas holiday with her family.
“Finding the silver lining of the situation, it was refreshing and pleasant to have her at home,” her brother, 23-year-old Taylor Shiffrin, said in March after his younger sister had already returned to the pro circuit. “We saw each other way more than we usually do this time of year. We don’t usually have that in the winter, at least not since we were at Burke.”
Life has been something of a roller coaster for the two Shiffrin children this season, who both started skiing seriously at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont before going their separate ways in the wide, wild world of top-tier ski racing. First, Mikaela unofficially announced her bid for an overall World Cup title with commanding wins at the opening technical races of the tour, including a record-setting duo of runs in Aspen over Thanksgiving weekend. She became the first American to win there since 1984, thanks in large part to a 3.07-second lead over Slovakia’s Veronika Velez-Zuzulova in second place — the greatest margin in World Cup slalom history. (Velez-Zuzulova currently sits at second in the overall slalom standings. She’s no pushover.)
Then came the crash (more on that later). While Shiffrin was sidelined, her brother, also a technical specialist, was leading the University of Denver ski team to a NCAA skiing team title. On March 12 in Steamboat Springs — three months to the day after his sister’s injury, and less than a month after her return to skiing — the DU squad won its 23rd title to become the most decorated team in collegiate history.
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“It was pretty spectacular,” said Taylor, now a senior who will pursue an MBA and likely continue skiing the Nor Am circuit next year. “It’s always fun to win a championship, but with it being the last college race of my career it was just incredible. Our team worked hard and it’s nice to see us get there in the end.”
Before Taylor and DU completed their long, slow journey to the championship, his sister was already back on the snow — and winning. After nine weeks of vigilant rehab, she returned to competition on Feb. 15 in Crans Montana, Switzerland, where she beat Nastasia Noens of France in the slalom. This time it was by a more modest margin of 0.45 seconds, but it was a win nonetheless. And it couldn’t have come soon enough.
“The toughest part mentally was feeling like I was ready to do things before I was ready to do anything because I didn’t have a lot of pain and swelling,” Mikaela said before today’s slalom at St. Moritz, Switzerland. “When the doctors said, ‘You can ski now,’ I was like, ‘I could’ve skied two weeks ago!’ But we had to be patient with it.”
Holiday on crutches
Mikaela’s comeback win on Feb. 15 wasn’t a fluke. In her second race — another slalom on March 6 in Jasna, Slovakia — she beat Wendy Holdener of Switzerland (currently third in the overall World Cup discipline standings) by 2.36 seconds, a devastating margin that’s become an intimidating trademark for the young American.
But it’s not necessarily a new trademark. Since joining the World Cup in 2010 — and for years before that at Burke, when she and her mother followed Taylor to the East Coast ski mecca — Mikaela has picked apart an older, more seasoned field with surgical slalom technique and a scholar’s approach to skiing. Like her brother, she’s almost unconsciously cerebral on the snow.
“She always has this passion for improving and continuing to learn the sport,” Taylor said. “She’s a true student of the sport. That’s one of her great attributes, even when she was injured: She would study video and immerse herself in the education of racing.”
It was all Mikaela could do to stay sane over the holidays. For a young Olympian facing her first rehab, Christmas with the family was a blessing and a curse, although it wasn’t quite a curse — just more of a momentary lifestyle change. Mikaela was only on crutches for about two weeks, but she vividly remembers trying and failing to carry presents to the Christmas tree. Her parents asked why she was struggling with the load, and all she could think to say was, “Everyone is busy — I can’t ask you to do it for me.”
“As soon as I was allowed to walk, I was like, ‘I’m never asking for anything ever again,’” she said from Switzerland on March 18, then paused for a laugh. “That quickly changed. I’m still asking them for some stuff.”
Taylor could sense his sister’s need to do something — anything — other than study film and video. She wanted badly to be at the races with her friends and teammates and fellow competitors, he said, and instead dedicated her pent-up energy to physical therapy.
“I wouldn’t say she was enjoying a break because it wasn’t really a break,” Taylor remembered. “As many athletes know, any time you injure yourself the sole job is to get healed and maintain strength. It’s not a vacation by any means, and that’s for any professional athletes at the top of their sport, in any sport.”
The overall gamble
Even though her injury came on a GS course, it’s easy to assume that Mikaela tore her MCL while training for downhill and Super-G — the speed disciplines she needs to claim the overall World Cup title. At the start of the season, she was optimistic about her first bid for the sport’s highest honor, a title that U.S. teammate Lindsey Vonn has claimed four times. Despite suffering yet another leg injury on Feb. 27, the 31-year-old superstar claimed her 20th World Cup discipline championship with the female downhill title — an award she accepted wearing a knee brace in St. Moritz.
“I feel like I’ve taken a pretty methodical approach to speed so far, especially this past prep period and over the summer,” Mikaela said during the U.S. Ski Team’s training sessions at Copper in October. “I got quite a bit of time skiing over terrain and jumping and trying to go fast, practicing the tucks and all the different pieces, the elements of speed. I’m not actually that nervous right now.”
Is Mikaela primed to take over for Vonn? Only her skiing will tell. Mikaela says she’s always wanted to excel at every discipline — this year marked her first World Cup Super-G, which ended with a promising top-30 finish — and, as a student of the sport, she knows that a strong technical skier can dominate the overall field with more ease than speed demons.
“I feel like there are huge opportunities to win alpine combined by huge margins,” Mikaela said of the event with one downhill and two slalom races. “If you can be really good — excel at both — no one can catch you.”
Injury or no, Mikaela wants to vie for the overall title again next season. It’s almost mathematically impossible for her to claim the slalom title with one race remaining, but that hasn’t quelled her drive. It’s why she’s still defeating top-tier skiers by two seconds or more, and why she’s not willing to let up after the first major setback of her career.
“I never feel that great about skiing a race if I don’t put my best skiing out there,” Mikaela said. “Right now, in the slaloms, when I put out my best skiing, I’ve been taking the top spot of the podium…These last few races of the season are more important than anything.”
For Taylor, that kind of drive is simply his sister — nothing more, nothing less.
“The results speak for themselves and her dedication to getting back to it,” Taylor said. “She loves ski racing so much. She loves the women on the circuit, the people who are involved, the feeling of skiing — she loves every part of it.”
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