Coming full circle: Mikaela Shiffrin’s rise from inexperienced teenager to top of the world
Just two days prior to her 16th birthday, Mikaela Shiffrin kicked out of the start house atop the Svatý Petr Black giant slalom course at Špindlerův Mlýn ski resort in the Czech Republic launching her World Cup career.
Not even Nostradamus could envision what the future would hold, but for the young, inexperienced and starry-eyed Burke Mountain Academy ski racer, it was a big step and a thrilling moment.
“It’s like a dream really coming true here — I can’t explain it, but it’s something close to amazing,” Shiffrin told me on Friday, March 11, 2011, for a story I was writing for Ski Magazine.
“In the finish, there are so many cameras around you and people checking equipment,” Shiffrin continued, filled with youthful exuberance. “It’s just so intense and another step above. It keeps on getting better. It’s just a surreal experience.”
Shiffrin was the youngest racer in the 49-competitor field that day. Starting bib No. 46, she was unable to qualify for the second run top 30, but had another shot in her preferred event of slalom the next day.
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Our chat in the finish area went unnoticed, unsurprisingly. Shiffrin’s teammate Lindsey Vonn — a three-time overall World Cup champion at the time — was locked in a tight battle with rival Maria Höfl-Riesch for the season title, captivating everyone’s attention.
“Lindsey is so nice — I was nervous about meeting her because she is one of my biggest idols,” Shiffrin said. “Sarah (Schleper) too and really all the U.S. Ski Team girls. They’ve all been great, really supportive and they’ve told me that I could ask them anything. I’m mostly trying just to not get in their way.”
Quickly gaining confidence, Shiffrin performed admirably in the slalom. She finished 32nd in the morning run, narrowly missing the afternoon cut by a mere 0.05 seconds. A solid showing, no doubt.
“I had a couple of mistakes, but knowing that they (other racers) came down and had mistakes too and were still fast makes me want to get to that level even more,” said Shiffrin, following her GS run.
Spoiler alert: Shiffrin would indeed get to that next level.
“It was a good experience for Mikaela and I’m glad we brought her over,” said then U.S. Ski Team women’s head coach, Alex Hoedlmoser. “She handled everything really well and did a great job.
“She had a big mistake right before the finish and still almost qualified. We know she has the speed to qualify and with another prep period, she’s going to be good.”
With all due respect to coach Hoedlmoser, “going to be good” turned out to be quite the understatement. Then again, 88 individual victories, in any sport, is not something a coach or even fortune-teller casually predicts.
Shiffrin’s first career World Cup victory came in her 24th World Cup start, 21 months later, on December 20, 2012. She sliced through the slalom gates as the fastest racer down the mountain in Åre, Sweden, 0.29 seconds ahead of runner-up Frida Hansdotter.
A magical night under the bright lights in Sochi
As Shiffrin vigorously ascended toward Ingemar Stenmark’s longstanding 86 victories benchmark this season and ski racing immortality, I was recently asked when exactly did I know that she was a truly gifted and special athlete.
Although Shiffrin became world champion for the first time at age 17, in February of 2013, at least for me, something struck in between runs of the Sochi 2014 Olympic slalom.
As the gold medal favorite despite her youth, Shiffrin executed a near-flawless first run at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, charging to a sizeable 0.49-second advantage over veteran Höfl-Riesch.
Now mind you, in ski racing and most other sports, elite athletes generally do not interact with media in the midst of competition. If at all, perhaps a quick question, maybe two, between runs or at halftime of games, usually reserved for the lead broadcaster. Journalists are expected to keep questions brief and pointed to the events that just transpired, before a vigilant press officer quickly whisks the athlete away, often uttering “thanks guys.”
We all wondered would we be afforded a quick chat with Mikaela after she led the first run and was on the cusp of becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion in history. Still, relatively inexperienced three weeks prior to her 18th birthday, she had to be nervous, uncertain, and perhaps even afraid of facing an overzealous gathering of media, considering the timing, moment, and what was at stake.
Sure enough, U.S. Ski Team press officer Doug Haney led Mikaela over to us as we jockeyed for position, eager to fire questions at her as she pursued an Olympic gold medal. Shiffrin was cool, calm and collected, swiftly handling one question after another, like slamming slalom gates out of her way, never flinching or appearing unnerved.
Finally, the interview ended. It seemed like an eternity that we gathered golden material. I took in the moment, absolutely amazed at Shiffrin’s fearless presence and unflappable demeanor, under the bright lights of an Olympic night slalom. Did that really just happen?
Can you imagine LeBron James patiently giving a six-minute interview at halftime of an intense NBA Finals game?
I remember almost feeling guilty that perhaps we took too much of her valuable time, and as a result, she would ultimately falter. Not the case.
Despite one gut-wrenching mistake, which she somehow managed to survive with an acrobatic recovery midway down her second run, Shiffrin won gold. The Colorado ski racing prodigy was 0.53 seconds faster than the silver medalist and childhood idol, Austrian Marlies Schild.
“Today was one of the most special days of my life,” Shiffrin said, on that evening in Krasnaya Polyana. She described her mid-run mistake and subsequent recovery as “pretty terrifying for me.”
At that instant, having observed Mikaela withstand a mountain of pressure while overcoming a near catastrophe on the world’s greatest sporting stage, it became clearly evident that this was just the beginning of further greatness to come. It was an inspiring evening for Americans and ski racing aficionados who witnessed the elite performance firsthand. And I’m certain, for those watching at home in Colorado too.
Shiffrin’s greatest season ever?
Hard to fathom that nine years of racing turns and frequent victories have flashed before our eyes, since Shiffrin proudly stood atop the Olympic victory podium as an up-and-coming 18-year-old athlete, in far-away Russia.
Now, upon the culmination of this past season, Shiffrin once again stands on top of the skiing world. Her numerous records and achievements, but also humble demeanor and humility, transcend the sport.
Exactly 12 years to the day after her World Cup debut in those Czech Krkonoše Mountains, Shiffrin eclipsed Stenmark’s former record of 86 World Cup wins. Her historic 87th victory came on March 11th in Åre Sweden. The 28-year-old phenom from Edwards emphatically claimed the record, winning a slalom by 0.69 seconds.
Her record-breaking 2022-23 campaign also saw her surge past former teammate Vonn to attain the all-time women’s mark. Shiffrin captured her 83rd career triumph in a GS on January 24th, in Kronplatz, Italy.
Add to her two milestones: 14 victories, 18 podiums, her fifth overall World Cup title, in addition to a seventh slalom title and second GS title. She capped off the dream season with a GS victory at the season finale in Andorra.
With all records and season titles taken care of, it was nice to see Shiffrin sharing and enjoying time with her Norwegian boyfriend Aleksander Aamodt Kilde at World Cup Finals in Andorra. Ski racing’s power couple was even seen out dancing and mingling with fans one night.
“We had a great time together here — we stayed at the same hotel and had some dinners together,” said Kilde, a two-time world cup downhill champion. “For her not having to fight for any globes is really beautiful and the same for me. And today as well (with her giant slalom win), she just keeps on showing that she is the best in the world.”
Shiffrin’s stellar season also included three more world championships medals to total 14, including giant slalom gold, at the two-week showcase event in France. It marked the third time, over six world championships, that the American ski racer brought home three or more medals.
She tallied a personal best 2,206 World Cup points this season, two more than her previous high of 2019, taking top honors by a staggering 989 points over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Four years earlier, she won 17 races en route to her third World Cup title, distancing runner-up Petra Vlhova by 849 points. Shiffrin is the only ski racer in history to twice score 2,000 points in a season.
Was this season her best, and perhaps also most satisfying, of an illustrious 12-year World Cup career?
“I don’t know if it (this season) is more satisfying, but I see the similarities,” Shiffrin said, looking relaxed and speaking candidly at a season-closing news conference in Andorra. “I’ve been thinking about it during the greatest points this season. It felt very reminiscent of that season.
“Of course, the number of victories and colors of medals is different, but it is mind-boggling to me to be in a position again where I felt that same kind of momentum through a season.
“With the level of competition, I can be proud of that.”
Follow Brian on Twitter — @Brian_Pinelli