Skieologians: What makes Mikaela Shiffrin truly great |

Skieologians: What makes Mikaela Shiffrin truly great

Three attributes which have secured GOAT status for the Edwards skier

Mikaela Shiffrin reacts after winning the World Cup giant slalom race in Are, Sweden, Friday, March 10, 2023. With her 86th-career victory, she matched the overall record set by Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark 34 years ago.
Pontus Lundahl/AP photo

I’m sure a more seasoned ski critic than I could easily nail 87 theses defending Mikaela Shiffrin’s Alpine greatness to the Vail Daily doors. Well, let’s just say I think there are at least three things all of us can appreciate — and maybe even learn from.


The old adage goes something like this: “no matter how good you are, there’s always someone better.” Logically speaking, this is true for every discipline and for every person — except whoever sits at the top. The truest sign one is not at the top is a constant need to defend their legacy in the public square.

Antonio Brown, for example, upon his exit from the NFL, uttered, “My biggest regret is that I’ll never get to see me, Antonio Brown, play a game live. Sure, I can watch the game afterwards, but I can’t imagine what that was like for you all to see something like that. Like watching The Beatles or Jesus perform at Red Rocks.”

Even Simone Biles, who might be the greatest gymnast ever, felt the need to arrive at the Olympic Trials with a GOAT-bedazzled leotard.

Contrast that with Mikaela, who politely asks the local high school coach if she’ll be in the way of his prep athletes while training on the Battle Mountain soccer field every summer. Throughout this record chase, Shiffrin has humbly deflected the nauseating stream of reporters’ questions and comparisons to Stenmark. She feels no urgency to argue her case because, to be frank, the skiing completely speaks for itself.

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That being said, let’s appreciate the statistical superbness.


In this day and age, it’s important to bring some objective facts to the table. In 246 World Cup starts, Shiffrin has been on the podium 136 times and won 87 races. The 35% win rate is remarkable (Johannes Klaebo and Mikael Kingsbury fans, we hear you, too). Consider Lindsey Vonn’s 395-career World Cup starts amounted to 82 wins. To play devil’s advocate, however, stat junkies will appreciate me noting Stenmark’s route.

While Shiffrin needed 11 years, 11 months and 28 days after her first top-level race on March 11, 2011 to get to 87, it took Stenmark 15 years, 2 months and 11 days between his World Cup debut in 1973 and his last win in 1989. However, according to the FIS database, he had only 230 starts (the exact number is unconfirmed, since during Stenmark’s time, skiers who competed in races but failed to score World Cup points may not have been registered). Plus, in Stenmark’s debut season, 21 races were on the calendar compared to 38 for Shiffrin in 2022-2023. Ok, the eras were different.

In lieu of confused readers thinking my last paragraph dashes my original premise, let me end with my bottom line: Every generation observes a few athletes who are touted as ‘the next one,’ ‘the great one,’ and ‘the chosen one’ before they’ve even acquired a driver’s license. But rarely do those prodigies completely live up to their billing — and almost never do they deliver for a multi-decade-long career. Lebron, Serena, Gretzky — they were hyped at 15 and they lived up to the hype until they were 38. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, was maybe the greatest sports prodigy ever, but injuries and other events kept him from securing Jack Nicklaus’ Majors record, which seemed like a foregone conclusion in 2002.

Lebron, after 20 seasons in the NBA, just broke the crown jewel scoring record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mikaela’s eclipsing Stenmark’s ‘unbreakable’ mark is the equivalent of Lebron doing that during his first stint with the Cavaliers. There’s a reason the great Swede himself believes Shiffrin will end somewhere in triple digits.

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after winning Saturday’s women’s World Cup slalom, in Are, Sweden.
Alessandro Trovati/AP


Finally, it’s important to note that what really revs Shiffrin’s engine are the pieces to the process — not the prizes. A 2014 New York Times piece nails it, where Shiffrin is quoted as saying, “I remember as a little girl in Vail, it would be a powder day and my parents would say, ‘Let’s go free ski in the back bowls.’ And I’d say: ‘No, I want to stay on the racecourse and train. I’m working on my pole plants.’ I wanted to get better at something every day.”

When asked how she got so good so soon, her mom Eileen said, “There is no exact answer. People tell me I should write a book. I laugh, because you know what I would put in the book? How Mikaela got good because she had to shovel cow manure for weeks with me when we were replacing our lawn one summer.”

“It was 90 degrees and she was 10 years old and she worked so hard without complaining,” she continued. “So she’s a good ski racer because she did all kinds of different developmental things — like learning a good work ethic — but none of them were part of a plan to make a world champion.”

For some people, the prospect of drills on powder day sounds borderline unhealthy, ridiculous and forced. For others … for a select few… it’s what gets them out of bed.

To this list, I’m sure we could add ‘transparency’ and ‘confidence’ to her mental traits and ‘versatility’ and ‘technical prowess’ to her athletic gifts. But ultimately, the unrivaled pursuit of perfection is the best place to stop because it’s probably the obvious place to start.

In order for the cliche — “there’s always someone better than you” — to not apply, another worn phrase must never cease from being whispered in the ear of those chasing GOAT status: “There is always someone out there getting better than you.”

For athletes like Shiffrin, the drive to drill while normal folks shred pow springs not only from a wellspring of joy, but also a pattern of intentional decision-making. There’s only one way for limits to be pushed and records to be broken — until of course, there are no more marks to chase.

That’s greatness.

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