Mikaela Shiffrin: No. 1 in every sense | VailDaily.com

Mikaela Shiffrin: No. 1 in every sense

Shiffrin's legacy stands on much more than the records she has smashed en route to becoming the greatest of all time

Mikaela Shiffrin poses with her trophies for the World Cup slalom, giant slalom and overall titles last month in Soldeu, Andorra.
Alessandro Trovati/AP

Cecilia Folz, president of the Vail Valley Foundation from 1999-2015, first met Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2013 Alpine World Ski Championships in Schladming, Austria.

“Every person in the stadium that day knew she was going to be a big deal,” Folz remembered of the day Shiffrin won the first of a record four-straight slalom world titles. “But most, I’m sure, had no idea she would go on to what she has gone onto. Me included.”

Mikaela Shiffrin, center, with Austria’s Michaela Kirchgasser, left, and Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, right, after the American won the first of her four-straight slalom world titles in Schladming, Austria on Feb. 16, 2013.
Kerstin Joensson/AP photo

After the local wunderkind became the youngest slalom Olympic gold medalist a year later, she arrived at the Vail Valley Foundation’s Fourth of July picnic, preferring servanthood over celebrity status. 

“Immediately upon arriving at the gathering, Miki and her mom, Eileen, came over and said ‘let me know what I should be doing. I’m happy to go meet each table or whatever you need of me,'” Folz recalled. 

“They had been invited as guests of honor, but in the most humble of all ways, Eileen and Jeff held out an expectation, and Mikaela an appreciation, that it is the people who support the sport — the people who cheer for her and care about her — that make a difference in her success.”

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So, is it really all about the five World Cup overall globes or the 10 season discipline titles? What about the 17 global medals — including a record six consecutive World Ski Championships with a gold? 

Is Mikaela Shiffrin’s case for greatness as numerically objective as her 35.3% winning percentage across 249 starts, a rate which has yielded a record 138 podiums and, of course, the hallowed 88 World Cup victories?

“I believe she will be recognized by her first name, Mikaela, in households throughout the world of sports, much like Pele and Martina did in their time,” predicted U.S. Alpine ski legend Cindy Nelson. Still, Nelson agrees with the other legends Shiffrin has surpassed, the peers she has pushed, and the youth she has inspired: the skier’s stardom stands on something else.

She’s as worthy of an exemplar off the snow as she is on it.

“Mikaela has been setting an example of hard work, dedication, kindness, and humility for all, and inspiring the next generation — both on and off the mountain,” said the Norwegian downhill king Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, Shiffrin’s boyfriend. “You would think an athlete at her level always puts herself first, but Mikaela will always make sure everyone is having a good time and taken care of.” 

An identity forged by failure, and refined by fire

A recent example of how Shiffrin has raised the level of U.S. skiing: Shiffrin and Paula Moltzan placed first and second at a World Cup slalom in Austria on Dec. 29, 2022. It was the ski team’s first 1-2 finish in a women’s World Cup slalom in more than half a century.
Giovanni Auletta/AP photo

Though Shiffrin has thrust U.S. skiing into the limelight of the European sport’s big stage and elevated her teammates’ performance in the process, articulating her domestic impact isn’t as easy as it seems, according to Paul Kristofic.

 “Turns out, it isn’t that simple,” said the head coach of the Alpine women’s program for the U.S. Ski Team.

Part of the equation involves balancing a ratio of stunning highs and devastating lows, both meticulously measured under the microscope of the ski community and media. 

“What I’ve experienced over eight seasons working closely with Mikaela has been nothing short of remarkable,” Kristofic said. “As a coach, you only dream of having an opportunity like this, because you learn something every day from an athlete that is so capable, so communicative and driven by perfection.” 

Shiffrin has lived up to that drive since her first World Cup race in Lienz, Austria, on Dec. 29, 2011, and her first win — a night slalom in Are, Sweden in December 2012. Ever since her career has been defined by redefining what’s possible. Victories piled up by the dozen — like during her record-setting 17-win 2018/2019 campaign. With trademark versatility, nimble athleticism and a dogged but joyful approach to drills and details, she’d become the only man or woman to win a World Cup race in all six disciplines.

It’s no wonder then that the expectation going into her third Olympics last February was lofty. Predicting medals in all six events she entered wasn’t some far-fetched prognostication. Walking away with three DNFs and no podiums, however, seemed borderline unthinkable. For Kristofic, it’s a crucial part of the story.

Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, sits on the side of the course after skiing out in the first run of the women’s slalom at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in the Yanqing district of Beijing.
Robert F. Bukaty/AP photo

“You learn the true meaning of pressure, the thrill of winning (which never gets old) but more importantly, how to learn from the not-so-perfect days and come back stronger,” Kristofic said, seeming to allude to his pupil’s refinement by fire. The Beijing chapter is one Shiffrin won’t rip out and leave on the cutting room floor.

“If I could go back and change something in my life, I would not choose to change my Olympic experience,” Shiffrin told ESPN in May. “There are things in my life I would change, though.” 

“All it would have taken for my dad not to die; all it would have taken is for him to not fall at a time when somebody couldn’t help him up right away. It was as simple as that. Not succeeding at the Olympics? That was not the hardest thing I have experienced in my life.”

First-place finisher Mikaela Shiffrin, left, poses with her father, Jeff Shiffrin, after the women’s World Cup slalom ski race in Aspen on Nov. 28, 2015. Not a day goes by that some image, moment or even song doesn’t remind Mikaela Shiffrin of her dad, Jeff, who died in February 2020, after an accident at his home in Colorado.
Nathan Bilow/AP photo

In many ways, her failures in Beijing, plastered on a big-screen broadcast for all to see, offered context and consequentially, healing, for her more important — hidden — internal battles. The unfathomable pain from the Feb. 2, 2020, death of her father and the decade-long burden of an identity based on outcomes was given a proper perspective.

Mikaela Shiffrin hugs Norway’s Aleksander Aamodt Kilde after Shiffrin won the World Cup Finals downhill in Courchevel, France, last year. Even though she’s a tech specialist, Shiffrin has won World Cup races in all six ski disciplines.
Alessandro Trovati/AP photo

A month after the Olympics, she gave the World Cup field a peek at what her psychological growth meant for them, returning to Courchevel to win the World Cup Finals downhill and securing her fourth overall globe. Six months later, she expressed security and contentment in her legacy and career during Atomic’s media day. Her mature poise was rooted in a renewed passion for the sport she’d shown rare dedication to as a youth, under the watchful tutelage of her parents and coaches at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and Burke Mountain Academy.

“There’s nothing that has to be done, it’s just doing it because apparently, I like it,” she said last October. A month later, after achieving win No. 81 amidst a five-race midseason win streak, she said her pre-race mindset was, “I could win today, but I also might not.”

“And either way,” she said after the race, “I’m OK with that, as long as I push it and try to do skiing that’s deserving of a victory.”

Cruising to her career-best season point total while racking up three more globes, the 28-year-old’s replies to a nauseating stream of Ingemar Stenmark-related questions along the way has reflected a philosophical dichotomy one could argue is now vintage Shiffrin. With the weight of record-chasing bearing down on her coiled thighs, she carries expectations high enough to elicit first-timers’ starting-gate nerves. But they’re undergirded by a sentiment that the record, and wins, aren’t everything. 

“It’s so counterintuitive,” she would tell Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop before this season’s World Cup Finals. “You have to let go of something to truly enjoy it, and to truly enjoy it, you have to care about it.”

The message has been received by those who view her as more than just an Olympic hero, but a role model. 

“It just shows that who she is as a person isn’t compromised by her performance,” Vail Mountain School senior and future University of Denver skier Liv Moritz aptly summarized. “Which I think is so incredibly important because in the grand scheme of things, skiing is going to go away and it’s what we do as people that is really important.”

“Mik has never defined herself based on her performance numbers and I think that is fitting because you cannot truly count the people and lives that she has touched simply by being a kind, caring, and compassionate person,” added Thomas Walsh, a 2022 Beijing paralympic silver medalist and kindergarten classmate of Mikaela’s. Back then, she annoyed him with her constant singing. Later, she would sit by his side while he endured cancer treatments. Vail-born and raised, Walsh knows something everyone else does, too: Shiffrin’s influence extends beyond her home.

“Mikaela’s career has redefined what it means to be a ski racer in not only the United States, but in the whole world,” he stated.

“She has shown that as a North American you can dominate in a European-based sport,” Shiffrin’s current coach, Karin Harjo, added. “She is inspiration to so many young women worldwide that dream to be just like her.”

One of us

Kjersti and her sister Liv Moritz, as well as Kaitlin Keane, stand next to Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2015 Alpine Ski World Championships opening ceremony.
Kaia Moritz/Courtesy photo

Chris Anthony, who’s forged a Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame career behind a camera, said when he first introduced himself to Shiffrin, he was surprised to find out the skier already recognized him from a youth ski race he took photos at. 

“I had to go back to that event and pick her out from the photos,” a dumbfounded Anthony relayed of yet another anecdote emblematic of the down-to-earth superstar. “There was this little girl,” he continued after finding the snapshot of the global icon as a youngster. “And it just makes you wonder — especially me, as I visit hundreds of elementary schools and meet thousands of kids through my Youth Project — what these little kids can become.”

While not every local that dons a Ski and Snowboard Club Vail jacket like Shiffrin once did ends up even making an NCAA team, much less a World Cup start — two locals are headed in the right direction. Liv and Kjersti Moritz, both 2023 World Junior qualifiers, were fourth graders when they had their picture taken talking to their heroine at the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships held in Vail and Beaver Creek. 

Awestruck by the Team USA jackets at the fan-signing night, Liv, wearing two hats, eventually mustered up the courage to ask one person for an autograph — an athletic trainer.

Liv Moritz, with her two hats, poses with Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2015 World Championships in Beaver Creek.
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“It’s kind of embarrassing, but a funny story,” she said of her choice of headgear, adding that until that event, she didn’t realize just how big ski racing is.

“Looking back, it’s very cool to see how hard work, determination, and athletes such as Mikaela to look up to have helped bring me to a higher level, where I am friends with many U.S. Ski Team athletes, such as my twin sister.”

“I remember Mikaela being super approachable and kind to us,” added Kjersti regarding that night. A first-year U.S. Ski D-team member, Kjersti received encouraging texts from Shiffrin in the wake of her mid-season knee injury. 

“She was super kind and supportive, which I thought was really cool considering how busy she is.”

As an athlete rising in the development pipeline, Liv said she thinks Shiffrin, being the “most perfect skier,” has probably made her more aware and even “hypercritical” of her technique. 

“(She) helps me strive to match that level,” she explained.

“So many young athletes look up to her and should see their own potential to be great,” Team USA legend Daron Rahlves added.

“They’re energized by what they could possibly do with their own lives,” Anthony said. “That fact that this once little girl has worked so hard and grown into this success is what makes the impossible seem achievable. She is the girl next door.”

Wrapped in all of humanity’s flaws during that tumultuous, disastrous Olympics, Shiffrin’s transparency was a breath of fresh air. The losses didn’t represent a choke, but instead an opportunity for her grounded maturity to be on full display. And to Vail locals who’ve known her paradoxical mix of accessibility and greatness — saturated in humility — all along, it was a moment to well up with pride, embracing the idea that all of that — the journey — started here.

“I love how down-to-earth she is. We all see her as an amazing skier, as well as a person we can relate to,” said Kjersti Moritz, who anchors Shiffrin’s inspirational powers in the all-time winner’s motto: “Be kind, think first, have fun.” 

“It reinforces the idea that although we love skiing, it isn’t everything,” Kjersti said.

“I always thought she was the coolest and best role model because I found her to be an amazing skier and a great person,” she continued. “She definitely inspires me to be the best I can be in everything I do whether that’s on or off the hill.” 

After clinching her 21st giant slalom win in the final race of 2023 in Andorra, breaking Vreni Schneider’s women’s record (Stenmark won 46 GS events), Shiffrin said, “I was so nervous at the start. I think there isn’t a reason. You want to do well and it doesn’t matter about the records — you just want to do well.”

Referencing Shiffrin’s start-gate self-talk, Harjo said, “I believe her joy comes from learning and growing every day to be better than she was the day before and not just from results.”

“Regardless of the highs of shattering records or the lows of failure, it is her courage to continue by asking herself the question, ‘What can I do to improve and be better?'” her coach continued. “The beauty of this is she does not allow success, failure, or anyone else to define her or who she is. She chooses to define that. And that, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful messages you can share with the world.” 

Kristofic expects Shiffrin, perhaps the most well-rounded skier ever, to continue to push the limits in terms of technique, tactics and even equipment.

“Staying true to her process-oriented approach to every moment we have on snow, capitalizing on every opportunity we have to improve,” he said.

While Folz didn’t know what Shiffrin would sprout into when she watched her compete at the 2013 World Championships, and while no fan knows if the wins will stop somewhere in triple-digits or not, Shiffrin’s legacy is clearly untethered to records, medals or World Cup wins.

“Her dominance on the course is matched, and surpassed, by the way she lives her life and her family’s focus from the start on kindness, hard work and fairness,” Folz stated. “… there are GOATs in sport, but few are also GOATs in life. Mikaela is that rare athlete to be so successful in sport and so successful in humanity.”

She is simply the best — in every sense of the word.

Shiffrin, No. 1 in every sense of the word, celebrates World Cup win No. 82 with a smile.
Marco Trovati/AP photo

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