VAIL, Colorado - If you follow ski racing, or even if you don't, by now you've probably heard of the U.S. Ski Team's youngest star, Mikaela Shiffrin.Shiffrin, a Vail native, is the youngest person ever to win a U.S. Alpine Championship event, and at 17, she's already been on the World Cup podium twice. She had one last year, a third at a slalom in Lienz, Austria, and her most recent podium finish came just this month in Levi, Finland, where she took third in the slalom. That was Nov. 10.Since then, she's been on an absolute whirlwind of media sessions and training runs here in the U.S. The craziness basically began the minute she got off the plane on Nov. 12, and hasn't slowed down since.After traveling from Finland to Munich, Munich to Frankfurt, and finally Frankfurt to Denver on Nov. 11-12, Shiffrin and her parents, Avon residents who dutifully travel with her to her races, were forced to stay in Denver so Mikaela could do some media appearances in Colorado's capital city.On Tuesday, Mikaela did an interview in Denver before the Shiffrins drove back to Avon. Mikaela considers that a "day off." On Wednesday Nov. 14, she was back on the snow, training at Copper in the morning and doing private interviews all afternoon.On Thursday, Nov. 15, Shiffrin woke up at 3:30 a.m., still jet lagged from Finland. She started skiing at 7:30 a.m. at Golden Peak, where she trained until noon. From 12:05 p.m. until 4 p.m. she was the star of a photo shoot for Barilla, one of her sponsors. By 5 p.m., she was at Vail Square in Lionshead doing more interviews and preparing a speech to make while on stage that evening at the U.S. Ski Team Alpine Announcement. She stayed on stage until 7 p.m. or so and was back home in Avon by 8-ish.I've been following Mikaela and the U.S. Ski Team around for the last few weeks, between Copper and Vail. I've been given fantastic access to Mikaela through the ski team's press person, Doug Haney, and I've even had a chance to talk candidly with Mikaela's mother, Eileen Shiffrin, while Mikaela trains.What I've witnessed is a young talent with incredible poise, both on and off the snow, who appears to be a natural for this role and all it entails.But it's not nearly as easy as she's making it look, and she's receiving tremendous support along the way.New starAt the Copper Mountain media session on Nov. 13, Mikaela is all business. With theconfidenceof a veteran racer, she describes her transition onto the new GS skis ("I made the tactical adjustment and it clicked right away"), her run in Levi, ("Witha podium in slalom, I have more confidence"), and the episodes of pain she feels in her shins ("I still don't really know what the problem is, but every athlete competes with some sort of pain").The next day in Vail, I have a chance to catch up with her before the ski team's big alpine announcement, an annual event where the team gets as much of the alpine squad together as they can in one place at one time to announce the names of everyone on said team for that season.We were told by the ski team we'd have a chance to interview the athletes before they went on stage for the announcement. Another reporter and I find Haney and ask for our interviews, and he leads us into a room filled with bright green jackets, the U.S. Ski Team's new color for this season.Haney takes a look around the room. No Bode Miller, no Ted Ligety, no Lindsey Vonn, no Julia Mancuso, no Andrew Weibrecht, not a single member of the "A" squad is there. Except Mikaela, says Haney, feel free to go talk to her.I ask her a few questions about her training and having the comforts of home nearby. She says it's great that she gets to spend time with her family and her pet, Muffin, a large grey and black cat. Then, at one point, she appears to be crying. It turns out she has an eyelash in her eye. We cut the interview short and the next time I see her, she's on stage by herself holding a microphone. With Vonn gone, Shiffrin is the new star of the show, tasked with adding a local flair to the event. She greets the hundreds of people below her and begins her performance, which quickly starts to resemble a standup routine gone bad."How many people here are Vail natives like me?" she asks the crowd. An uncomfortable silence follows."How many people took their first-ever turns at Golden Peak?" she asks. This time the crowd utters a barely audible response of a few clapping hands.She proceeds."I remember going up Chair 6 when I was 5 years old and I couldn't reach the bar," she says, "but going up Chair 12 was a two-person chair, it was tiny, I could put the bar down, it was great. That was my favorite thing."An awkward silence follows. Finally someone lets out a loud "woooooo," seemingly as a courtesy to break up the dead air.After the event, I can't find Mikaela, but I do find Bode Miller. I ask him if he has time for a few quick questions for the local paper. He says he won't be doing interviews that evening. A few minutes later, I see Miller exiting out the back of the stage area. As he quickly walks away, he takes off his bright green jacket, presumably to reduce hisconspicuousnessas he makes his escape. Still a kidA few days later, I'm at Golden Peak during the 9 to 11:30 a.m. training session. I approach Mikaela with the intention of discussing all the media she's been receiving. The conversation quickly turns to a discussion of Thursday's standup routine."I had no idea I was doing that until the night before," she says. "They were like 'Do you mind doing this?' and I said OK. I got up there and I was like 'Wow, that's a lot of people.' I forgot what I was supposed to say ... it was a weird situation."Mikaela takes a run and I have a chance to meet her mother, who's holding a large snow drill, normally used for the hard-labor tasks of ski racing like securing slalom gates into the hillside. Such is the role of an on-course mother, she says. "It seems like it's pretty hard to be Mikaela right about now," I say.Mom tells me I have no idea."She tries really hard to stay focused," Eileen Shiffrin tells me. "She tries really hard to focus on the task at hand ... but she is still just a kid."I compliment Eileen on Mikaela's professionalism, and she puts her hand to her chest and thanks me with more sincerity than I've seen in a while. I get the impression Mom worked pretty hard to instill the high degree of professionalism I see in her young daughter.Mikaela returns, and says she's taking another run. It's nearly noon, all the other athletes from the 11:30 a.m. session are off the snow already."How many runs do you take?" I ask."Several," she says with a laugh."Most of the team does five or six usually," I say. "And you do 10?""Ummmm," says Mikaela."Yes," says Mom.Mikaela skis away and Eileen begins to tell me about Mikaela's particular brand of high-volume training. She's younger, so she can handle more runs than the rest of the athletes, says Mom.I hang out to wait for Mikaela's next run to finish. A few minutes go by and Mikaela cruises right back into the lift line, barely stopping. I run up to her, clumsily pushing a few people out of the way as I cross the snow, and and verify she's doing one more run. Indeed, she is, she tells me.A few minutes pass, and suddenly I'm greeted once again by Eileen, who's running up to me this time."Have you seen Mikaela?" she asks, seeming somewhat concerned."Yeah, she just got on the lift," I reply."Just right now?" Mom confirms."Yes, just a minute ago," I reply."Oh, good. I know she's supposed to be down by now but I didn't see her," says Mom. "I got scared that maybe she skied into the trees or something."At this point it occurs to me that Eileen Shiffrin is a mother above all else, and her assumed role as coach, psychiatrist, manager, agent, drill handler and ski sherpa comes as an obvious second to that primary function of nature.Here is a girl, I think, skiing all over the world on some of the iciest, most difficult conditions on which one can hold an edge, hitting speeds most of us will never experience without the aid of a motor, and if she doesn't show at just the right moment, her poor mother is concerned she's lying dead in an aspen stand.At this point I don't know who has the more difficult job, Mikaela or her mother.Life changesWhen Mikaela finally finishes training for that day, we have a chance to talk about some of the difficulties of her newfound status as a pro athlete and repeat World Cup podium finisher.I approach her the same way I have been after her runs, by walking right up to her and saying "hey" like you would with an old friend. Lindsey Vonn is supposed to make an appearance at any moment to set the pace for Vail Resorts' new Epic Mix Racing program, and in the back of my mind I'm already concerned about how difficult it's going to be to get a quote from Vonn. I've interviewed Vonn a few times in the past, and she's fantastically welcoming, but she's usually surrounded by a barrier of PR suits making it difficult to get at her."If only it were this easy with Lindsey," I think as I approach Mikaela.And then it hits me. I think about Haney referring me to Mikaela at the announcement event, while the rest of the A team were unavailable in an undisclosed location. I think about the team asking her to give an on-stage speech to hundreds on the eve of the event, and her response: "OK." I think about Mikaela's mom telling me they "had" to stay in Denver after getting back from Finland, due to interviews. I think about Mikaela's homework, which, in addition to the usual high-school level math and history, also involves her filling out Q&A requests from journalists in Italy. I think about how much of a pro she was a Copper, answering questions with the same poise as a veteran, and how, as I continued to watch her, she grew more giddy in the days that followed, like a child who gets a little loopy when it's past his or her bedtime.She's exhausted, I think, and at this point in her young career, she's an easy mark for the media. If you're a journalist, she's probably not going to turn you down for an interview. If the goal is to be the next Lindsey Vonn, then she can't be blowing off journalists just yet, like Bode Miller did to me at the ski team event.I make aconsciousdecision to keep this next interview as short as possible, for Mikaela and her mother's sake. But I also decide it's a good time to ask about Lindsey Vonn."I've always had so much respect for her, but I have so much more respect for her now seeing how she handles everything on and off the hill," Mikaela tells me."The past five years have been nonstop for her, she just doesn't get a break."I tell Mikaela if she continues to hit the podium, that's her future. Then I ask her if that thought intimidates her."I don't know if it's intimidating," she said. "I want to have the success a lot, but I mostly just want to ski ... I guess it's kind of nerve racking for me to look at her. That's what I want, but at the same time, if I can sneak out of this a little, I do like to sleep."I ask her if she feelsoverwhelmed."At this point I don't really know anything about all of it so I just get really excited," she says. "You wanna say 'yes' to everything and you don't really have time ... It's hard to explain to people because they say, 'that sounds really cool, don't complain about that.' I'm not complaining, I'm just exhausted."Mikaela got another day off the snow on Thursday, a travel day to get from Vail to Aspen, the scene of the next women's World Cup.She'll race a slalom and a GS there, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.And as per usual, Mom and Dad will travel with her."In that way, I do have an advantage," she says. "Having family nearby really helps."
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