Yanqing, China, :Mikaela Shiffrin will head to Beijing with a proven Olympic track record and on the back of World Cup form after a tumultuous year that has kept her in the spotlight as one of the world’s best alpine skiers.
Despite her medal haul, Shiffrin has insisted she keeps her three Olympic medals wrapped in socks and tucked away in a drawer, and only hung up her world championships medals to fill dead wall space.
It is indicative of the American’s steel-edged approach to ski racing that has been nurtured from a young age.
It is easy to forget that Shiffrin is still only 26 years old, having remarkably won her first world slalom gold in Schladming in 2013 aged just 17, two years after her World Cup debut.
The statistics are truly incredible. She went on to win three more world slalom titles in 2015, 2017 and 2019 as well the 2014 Olympic slalom title before claiming giant slalom gold and combined silver at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.
Shiffrin, a three-time defending overall champion, has already notched up 73 wins in the World Cup, including 47 in slalom, leaving her within touching distance of retired former US teammate Lindsey Vonn’s female record of 82 World Cup wins.
She has also racked up victories in the giant slalom (14), combined (one), parallel slalom (four), city event (three), downhill (two) and super-G (four), making her the only skier, male or female, to have won in all FIS disciplines.
Coach Mike Day is in no doubt that Shiffrin is one of the greatest ever skiers.
“She is an extremely sound skier,” Day told AFP in an interview. “She’s built her fundamental base at a young age and it’s very solid.
“She has that champion mindset, the ability to perform on demand, even when she is not at her best she goes out and performs. Because she is such a good skier, she is able to produce that volume and be as well-rounded, and has been able to transition to a four-event skier smoothly and efficiently.”
Astonishing as her race-winning figures may be, they are lost on Shiffrin herself — she argues that statistics and numbers “dehumanise the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve”.
“My goal has never been to break records for most World Cup wins, points or most medals at world champs,” she maintains.
It is that esoteric approach to skiing that is sometimes difficult for onlookers to grasp: she derives as much pleasure from a well-executed turn in training as she does from collecting another medal.
Shiffrin, who donned her first skis aged three in Vail, Colorado, where she grew up, gave an indication of the route her racing would take when asked after winning her breakthrough slalom gold at the 2013 Schladming worlds as a 17-year-old.
“It’s been 17 years in the making. Everyone says it comes so fast, but it seems like it’s been forever for me,” she said at the time.
Mature beyond her years, focused and driven, she has remained cool in the wake of her success, refusing to surrender to outside pressure and preferring to remember why she began skiing in the first place.
“I’m just doing what I do and I don’t want to wait,” she said. “The best feeling I can ever get is knowing I’m improving and doing everything I can to be in the moment and do the best I can. I get that when I’m skiing.”
– Until the sun goes down –
Pushed by her parents and a desire to copy her ski-racing brother, Shiffrin left Vail at the age of eight to join Burke Mountain Academy, a private school specialising in ski racing, before making her World Cup debut in March 2011.
“Ever since she was little, she would go until the sun went down,” Eileen Shiffrin said of her hard-working daughter. “She can do a lot of runs. She just keeps going.”
Shiffrin’s three-season streak as overall women’s World Cup champion ended with a horrible season marked by the sudden death of her father Jeff in February 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and a back injury as she went winless for the first time since her debut campaign, 2011-12, when she was 16.
After her father’s death she returned home to Colorado and spent more than 300 days off the piste. It was a year, she said, that “felt like 20 years”.
Last season, Shiffrin rebuilt by focusing on the technical events, the slalom and the giant slalom.
Her successful 2021 World Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, where she finished on the podium in all four of her races and won the combined, could serve as a blueprint for the Beijing Olympics where she could win a third consecutive gold.