As the reigning world and Olympic slalom champion, Mikaela Shiffrin has the brightest gold medal chances among the Colorado-connected Winter Olympians.
But there’s more to it than that for Shiffrin, whose story by now is familiar to most Coloradans.
She was born in Vail and lived in both Colorado and New Hampshire as her anesthesiologist father, Jeff, switched jobs, before settling back in the Rockies. At this point, she lists and considers herself a Coloradan and lives in Eagle-Vail.
Shiffrin has been dominating the World Cup circuit in the season leading up to the 2018 Games at PyeongChang, and it would take a complete departure from form, or something worse, for her to come up short of standing in the middle of the medal stand after the slalom or giant slalom. Those races come first in the Olympic schedule, and her chances at additional medals will depend on whether she also ends up entering the downhill, super-G, combined or team events.
Shiffrin is the best slalom skier in the world, hands-down.
It just feels like I’m skiing really well, and I’m starting to feel that in the races more and more. So it’s not like I’m dreaming, and that’s really cool. – Mikaela Shiffrin
Through the stop at Kranjska, Slovenia in early January, Shiffrin was the World Cup season leader in slalom, giant slalom and even the downhill, plus – of course – the overall standings. At that point, she had won 20 of the previous 25 slaloms she competed in, and missed finishing in the top three only once. She had 40 World Cup wins, and with 29 slalom wins, she had closed within six of the all-time leader, Austria’s Marlies Schild.
So far in her seventh season on the World Cup circuit, Shiffrin had won four slaloms, two giant slaloms, one parallel slalom, one downhill and the Oslo city event. The downhill win at Lake Louise came in only her fourth World Cup start in the event.
“I’m finding something new, some more speed,” Shiffrin said after the downhill win in Canada. “My positioning, my skiing, my tactics, everything’s coming together. I’m certainly not [just] a slalom skier anymore, I consider myself an all-event skier.”
Heading into PyeongChang, she has a bona fide chance to join Janica Kostelic of Croatia as the other woman skier to win three golds. Kostelic managed it in 2002, at Salt Lake City. She won the slalom, giant slalom and combined, passing on the downhill.
Shiffrin has been dominating. She wasn’t winning by the sport’s frequent margin of hundredths of a second, either.
Instead, she was winning by what passes in skiing for lapping the competition in the technical slalom disciplines.
Shiffrin took first in the slalom at Kranjska by 1.64 seconds. If this were basketball, she could have emptied the bench in the fourth quarter.
She said she wasn’t afraid she would wake up and discover that this season was a dream.
“This is the first time I’m not afraid of that,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m dreaming. It doesn’t feel like it’s something crazy that’s happening. It just feels like I’m skiing really well, and I’m starting to feel that in the races more and more. So it’s not like I’m dreaming, and that’s really cool.”
At Sochi in 2014, when she was just short of her 19th birthday, she finished fifth in the giant slalom and then won her specialty, the slalom, in dramatic fashion. She almost fell in her second run, and although she stayed on feet, it clearly cost her time. At that point, she quickly reminded herself of her thought after watching the women’s figure skating finals.
After a mistake, just keep skating.
Just keep moving.
Just keep skiing.
She managed to avert disaster, hold on to her lead and become the youngest-ever slalom gold medalist, male or female. She had won the event at the World Championships in 2013, so she was a favorite coming through.
As she crossed the finish line, she avoided looking at the scoreboard.
“I was a little scared to look at it,” she said that day. “I was like, ‘I gave it away, I know it.'”
Actually, she hadn’t.
I didn’t dream about being a slalom skier. I dreamed about being the best skier in the world. – Mikaela Shiffrin
In retrospect, as her slalom dominance has been striking since, it’s almost as if she was just getting her legs under herself at Sochi. She again won the slalom at the World Championships in 2015 and ’17 – in the latter year, she pulled it off despite missing two months on the circuit with a sprained MCL – and has been the slalom champion on the World Cup circuit in four of the past five years. She was injured for much of the season she didn’t win.
She won the World Cup overall title for the first time in March 2017, a dream come true that landed her the coveted crystal globe that goes to the winner. The overall title involves results across the five Alpine disciplines – slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super-G and combined.
The bigger surprise was her progression in the giant slalom, where she was second in both the World Championships and on the World Cup circuit in 2017.
“I didn’t dream about being a slalom skier,” she told writer John Henderson, who interviewed her last year in Paris for an October 2017 Mile High Sports Magazine story. “I dreamed about being the best skier in the world.”
She has already attained that. Now she will try to add to her legacy at PyeongChang.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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