In many ways, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin was very much like your typical high school graduate. She loved napping, singing in the shower and dedicating her downtime to a sport. Her’s specifically, being skiing.
But, when most freshmen in college were cramming for exams and trying to find an easy six pack, Shiffrin had a different idea.
Why not go to Sochi and become the youngest-ever to gold in Olympic Slalom?
Now at 22, Shiffrin is a three-time slalom world champion as well as the recently donned best women’s skier on the planet. I sat down ‘America’s Skiing Golden Girl’ the other day to talk about her road to success as well as her hopes and expectations heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Landon Small: Obviously being named the best female skier on the planet has been a dream, but do you remember having a moment when it finally felt like a reality?
Mikaela Shiffrin: During the middle of the season while I had maintained the lead and was still in the title hunt, I started thinking, ‘Wow, this may really work.’ Our last two race series of the season were in the U.S. and I thought it’d be unbelievably cool to take the lead in the overall standings back to the U.S. It was all pretty amazing.
Small: Does being a known winner now provide you with a different mental aspect going into competition?
Shiffrin: I try not to let those things change how I want to ski. Normally, I want to ski fast and win the race, no matter what’s at stake. There’s no denying that I understand the circumstances, but I’d never want to mess it up and lose it all because I feel like I have it under control. It was easier to be a competitor that surprises people than one with expectations though.
Small: You’ve topped the podium in both Olympic and World Cup competition. Is there a different edge competing for your country on the Olympic stage?
Shiffrin: I think this time around there will be more pressure because I’m coming back to the Olympics. In Sochi, I was naive to it all. It’ll probably be a little more real because I sort of know what to expect. When it’s time to race though, it’s time to race. Hopefully I’ll be able to channel that new kid on the block inner naivety and just ski well.
Small: Take me back to Sochi. You’re 18, your friends are just graduating high school, decorating their dorm rooms, and you’re in Russia becoming the youngest-ever Olympic slalom champ. What does that feel like?
Shiffrin: I don’t know to be honest. Obviously that happened, but I never was able to have a solid grasp or understanding of what it all meant. As soon as you win a medal, you’re taken through the rounds. Media tour, doping control, mix zone. It took me like three days to text my best friend back. I just didn’t have the time to sit back and take in what had just happened. And after it was all over, I got right back into the World Cup season. It’s good though, because if I had time to revel in Olympic gold, then maybe I wouldn’t have focused as much on moving forward.
Small: You suffered that knee injury a year after Sochi, but bounced back debatably better than before. Any chance you’re channeling an inner Ironman?
Shiffrin: I wish, I love Ironman. In a way, I was very lucky. It was at sort of a downtime in the schedule, and being able to come back and win was pretty incredible. The people around me, being my strength coach, my physio, and my parents. They all were the driving forces in helping me recover so quickly and successfully. I was rehabbing less that 24 hours after the injury on the plane on the way home.
Small: When you’re competing, does the fear of an injury now run through your mind?
Shiffrin: Yes. Yes it does. I have an acute awareness of what the injury risks are on any given day, and I’m always trying to weigh the balance of how important it is to really go for broke versus living to fight another day. I rarely crash, but when I am tired and start thinking I need to overcome this fatigue by pushing harder is when I get into a bad situation.
Small: Being from Vail and also living in New Hampshire for a time, it’s easy to see that you were unable to escape both the snow and the mountains. Without that and your parents’ love for skiing, do you think you would have still found the sport?
Shiffrin: I don’t think so. If I was born in Florida or Maui, maybe I’d be a surfer. Or maybe I wouldn’t have even done sports and just be a beach bum. I feel like there’s a million different paths and a lot of that has to do with what you do with your family. What started out as a family passion for us turned into my personal love for ski racing.
Small: If it weren’t skiing, what other sport would it be?
Shiffrin: Maybe tennis. It’s something I’ve always loved, well actually not until I started getting good at it, but I play with my mom during the offseason as a cross-training and that’s something I feel like you can play anywhere.
Small: What’s different in your preparation for Pyeongchang compared to Sochi?
Shiffrin: I’m doing quite a bit more speed. I spent three to four weeks in New Zealand primarily focusing on tech and then I go to Chile for two weeks primarily for speed. For Sochi, I focused more on tech, so this time around, I’m doing nearly double the amount of training in half the time.
Small: Which events can you confirm you’ll be attempting to compete in in the Winter Olympics?
Shiffrin: Well, to be honest I probably won’t know exactly which events until two weeks before the games. But, I for sure am targeting Slalom and Giant Slalom, and then maybe Combined and Super G. Those four events are the most likely.
Small: What’s one thing no one in the world knows about Mikaela Shiffrin?
Shiffrin: I’m an open book. Gosh, I have to ask my mom. It has to be singing in the shower. I put on full-on concerts and anyone that can hear me through the pipes upstairs knows I belt out Adele. I convince myself that I sound just like her, but when the music stops playing and I continue singing, that mindset changes.