The lobby of the five-star InterContinental Paris – Le Grand hotel looks like Paris in the roaring ’20s. Beautiful women preen in long, flowery gowns and hats as wide as satellite dishes. They pose in front of huge cameras as hotel staff in suits and ties flit around them like helper bees. Transportation awaits just outside the big glass doors. It’s not a horse-drawn carriage. It’s a big bus. But nothing is lost in the pomp department.
It’s the day of the Prix de Diane Longines, the world’s top horse race for fillies established in 1843 and a coming-out party for the Paris elite.
Behind the scenes, shuttled away in an upstairs conference room, is Longines’ queen of the ball. Mikaela Shiffrin is sitting in a relatively modest little red dress, her blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight pouring in through the big picture windows. Her mother, Eileen, one of her three coaches, is sitting across the room. Longines’ slogan is “Elegance is an attitude.” Shiffrin seems fit for that slogan out of central casting. Her elegance has gone worldwide from the global photo shoots that have been circulating the last four years. Her attitude is all over a résumé that resembles the careers of a dozen skiers combined. But sitting petitely on a fashionable couch, she’s missing some elegance.
She’s asked if she has a hat.
“Yep. It’s right over there,” she says, pointing at a matching red hat on a chair.
Shiffrin can blend in here. Then again, it’s Paris in June. It’s the quiet before the snowstorm. She made the trip from Vail to Paris as a happy obligation to Longines, the Swiss watch company that’s one of her 10 sponsors. She’s enjoying the peace and anonymity – not to mention croissants – if only for a weekend. Soon Shiffrin will be on TV screens in every living room in America and much of the Western world.
This is the run-up to the Olympic year, and Shiffrin has one of the choice catbird seats in American athletics: She is the face of the U.S. Ski Team. Lindsey Vonn may be the team icon and its most accomplished skier, but this is the Internet age. Faces are replaced with the click of a cyber link. Vonn is 33. With the U.S. stars beginning to fade onto their own Mt. Rushmore, Shiffrin is the ski team’s future. No skier alive has accomplished what she has at 22:
- Youngest Olympic slalom champion in history at 18
- Four-time World Cup slalom champ
- Three-time defending world champion in slalom
- Defending overall World Cup champ
- Thirty-one World Cup wins, already tied for ninth in history
“At age 22, most women are just starting to score at the World Cup level,” U.S. Ski Team CEO Tiger Shaw says.
Now she risks it all.
Shiffrin is spending this season shifting some of her focus from the slalom events she dominates to the speed events where she remains untested. This isn’t like Michael Phelps picking up the breaststroke. Downhill and Super-G are practically different sports from slalom and giant slalom.
Her motivation goes beyond experimentation. It goes to the core of what has motivated her since she first put on skis at age 2.
“I didn’t dream about being a slalom skier,” she says. “I dreamed about being the best skier in the world.”
Last season’s overall title didn’t satisfy that dream. It was more of a door prize. Even missing two months with an MCL injury in her right knee, she easily won the World Cup slalom title and finished second in the giant slalom. She won her first super combined event Feb. 26 and had enough decent finishes in the downhill and Super-G to win the overall.
But the day she won, March 18, felt all so anticlimactic. She finished second in the slalom and Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, the only person who could remotely catch her for the overall title, cited exhaustion and didn’t race the event. Shiffrin didn’t win the overall title by sliding to a stop and thrusting her arms in the air when she saw the timer. She won by napping in her hotel room and her mother telling her.
“Because that dream I had was to win in every single event, even though I’ve won the overall globe, it doesn’t feel like it’s staying true to my dream until I win in Super-G and downhill, if that makes sense,” she says. “Not to take anything away from anyone else, I just have this specific goal.”
She has the perfect model to follow in Marcel Hirschler. The Austrian has won five straight men’s overall World Cup titles by dominating the slalom and giant slalom and being merely good in Super-G.
However, the risk involved is huge. It’s not just the risk of being one caught edge on a downhill from a catastrophic injury (see Vonn, Lindsey: 2016, 2015, 2013, etc.) but the training involved in speed events takes time away from her specialty. Slalom isn’t as dangerous, but the timing and technique involved are something like gymnastics on snow.
The next seven women behind her in the World Cup slalom standings will remain slalom specialists. Please excuse them if they’re waiting for one Shiffrin slip at 70 mph.
“It takes significant time to get a reasonable amount of downhill and Super-G accomplished, once you commit to it,” Shaw says. “And Mikaela doesn’t do anything half baked. She’s 110 percent. If she’s going to do speed, she’ll put her heart and soul into it.”
The training regimen for speed events couldn’t be more different. The downhill and Super-G require powerful leg muscles. Downhillers concentrate on heavy-weight squats and long-term isometric holds. It’s all about power. A slalomer could almost train without lifting a weight if they did a lot of high-intensity intervals. It’s all about timing and technique.
“The only thing that’s not different is you’re on skis,” Shiffrin says.
Tamara McKinney was the first American woman to win the World Cup overall in 1983. She won the World Cup slalom two years earlier and started doing combined and Super-G events. The fatigue factor can’t be overlooked, she says. At the 1989 World Championships, she placed third in the downhill on her way to winning the combined title. The U.S. Ski Team asked her to race the specialty downhill the next day.
“I didn’t,” says McKinney, now a realtor for Sotheby’s in Squaw Valley, Calif. “I just said, ‘That’s it. That’s all I had.’ You have to be smart at speed as well because you’re not able to have the amount of training needed. If you have the ability to get out of your comfort zone, you also have to be smart about staying healthy. You can’t race it worrying about getting hurt. If you make a mistake at 75-plus in an icy downhill it can go the wrong direction.”
Shiffrin dipped her foot in speed events last season without breaking it. She did two downhills, finishing 13th and 18th at Lake Louise. She did five Super-Gs, finishing third once and fourth twice. She won the only combined she entered. This is all after dominating the slalom as few have before her.
It all hints to a potential that led Ted Ligety, America’s two-time Olympic gold medalist, to say, “If she stays healthy, she’s the one that has the best chance of having the most World Cup wins of all time.” Another person thinks she can be pretty good, too.
“I like to think that if I concentrate hard enough on anything then I can be the best at that,” she says. “But it takes a lot of practice. Obviously I have this background in ski racing. I understand speed. I understand the tactics. I understand the flow of the turn and what makes a turn fast.”
Says Shaw, a two-time Olympian: “Anybody knows that if you go to the highway and don’t slow down at the curve, at the clover leaf you start realizing, it takes a little planning getting around that curve – slowing down, picking your line. Downhill and Super-G are like that. It takes years of experience to develop a feel for that. There are often also blind jumps you have to learn where exactly what direction to take off of them. So it’s familiarity with the course and that occurs after years of racing on them. Everybody she competes with at Super-G and downhill have more experience on the tracks.
“But she’s catching them.”
Shiffrin has time. Remember, she’s only 22. The average age of the last 10 World Cup overall winners before her was 25.6. She branched off into slalom at 12 years old when “that really clicked for me.” After dominating the 2013 and 2014 seasons in slalom, she had her giant slalom to the point where she won three times last season and took two seconds.
If she puts in the same time in downhill?
“If she focused on that event, she could be among the world’s best,” Shaw says.
Adds McKinney: “She’s shown how dedicated, how competitive she is. She’s able to handle stress in a way that most people can’t. Plus, she’s phenomenally talented with a huge work ethic and a huge support staff behind her. She’s been successful for a number of years; that, I’m sure, will continue. Of course, she can progress in the downhill.”
The risk factor has a flip side. Yes, she’s risking injury and time. However, what does she have to lose? She’s already climbed skiing’s Everest. Now she has her sights on K2. If she fails, no one will take away her medals and trophies.
“I won the big one before I even knew it was the big one,” she says, smiling. “I definitely got some of those things out of the way right away. World Championships. Olympic gold medal. My first season title. My slalom gold. Those things came at a point where I was still clueless about what it all meant. It was important to me but I never asked why. So there wasn’t that extra pressure there.
“Now that pressure is starting to creep in a little bit.”
Pressure in the Olympics for anyone is mind numbing. Every four years, you have two runs to fulfill a lifelong dream. Now that Shiffrin has put that pelt on her wall, she must carry the pressure of an entire team. The U.S. team around her is beginning to melt into the snow.
Bode Miller, the most decorated skier in U.S. men’s history, has hinted at a comeback but hasn’t had a competitive race since February 2015. Ligety is 33 and coming off knee and back surgery in January. Julia Mancuso, the four-time Olympian and gold medalist, is also 33 and missed the last two World Cup seasons with hip surgery. Andre Weibrecht, 31, has won two Olympic medals but has only made two podiums in nine World Cup seasons. How many times can he come up big in the biggest moment of his life?
Then there’s Vonn, whose record 77 World Cup victories have become the eternal carrot Shiffrin is always asked about. Vonn has moved on from being the face of the U.S. team to being her own brand. Her celebrity and sex appeal are matching skiing ability that hasn’t slipped.
Shiffrin is more the girl next door, the one every man and every woman on the couch in February can identify with. She already had a dry run in the pressure cooker. At last year’s World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, she won her third straight gold in slalom and took silver in giant slalom.
“It has felt, pretty much since the Olympics in Sochi, like I started to assume that position,” she says. “I felt like I was there with Ted, then Ted got injured and that changed a little bit last season. I feel like it’s great for the U.S. Ski Team for somebody who’s had success and a platform. It’s helpful for them. It trickles down with the other athletes who are trying to make it as well.”
If Shiffrin takes her Olympic career to another level, the schedule sets her up perfectly. It starts with the giant slalom Feb. 12, then the slalom two days later. After that comes the Super-G, combined and downhill.
With an Olympic gold already in her pocket, Shiffrin is playing with the house money. The world will see how she prepares in the first half of the World Cup season. That begins Oct. 28 in Soelden, Austria. Her schedule is far from set. In fact, the Olympic team sometimes doesn’t sort out its participants for each event until the last minute. What she does and how she does in the World Cup will determine the same in the Olympics.
“If I feel like I’m falling off on my slalom and giant slalom, I’ll just say ‘no’ to my speed events,” she says. “It’s sort of a daily evaluation of where I’m at in slalom and GS and if that is good enough for me to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go do a speed week or let’s go do Super-G.’ But in order to do that, I need some training. I need time on the long skis. It’s not just like going off to do a Super-G race. It’s a couple-day event where I get prepared, as well.”
The competition will come from the likes of Stuhec again and others who finished behind her such as Italy’s Sofia Goggia and Federica Brignone as well as Switzerland’s Lara Gut. Then there’s the return of Vonn, the neon superstar.
The Olympic course at PyeongChang’s Youngpyong Alpine Centre will be familiar. She and the team trained on it in February and she found it to her liking.
“There’s a bit of everything,” she says. “There’s pitch. There’s flat. There’s terrain. That’s the best because it’s not like somebody who’s not that great a GS skier but who’s really fast on the flats is going to have the best times, because they have to ski a pitch. That evens out the playing field.”
Her time is up and she and her mother race out to catch a ride to famed Chantilly Racecourse. Later, Mikaela will hand a Longines watch to the winner of the horse race. Then she’s off to Hamburg, Germany to try indoor skiing for the first time in its Snow Dome.
Soon, however, the snow will be real. Then, Shiffrin can’t blend into a background of pomp and circumstance. She’ll be front and center in the Olympic rings. It’ll be time once again for her to put elegance aside and make way for attitude.
John Henderson is a freelance writer living in Rome. Read his travel blog, Dog-Eared Passport, at www.johnhendersontravel.com.