I’m standing near the finish line, next to a couple of local ski-racer boys, during the second of two runs at the 2011 U.S. Alpine Championships. It’s early April in Winter Park, Colorado, and a freak blizzard has blanketed the Rockies with fresh snow that has developed some deep ruts. Many top women slalom skiers, including Julia Mancuso, have bounced off the course. (Three-time World Cup champ Lindsey Vonn was a no-show.)
Then, over the final rise comes 16-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, the first run’s winner. She’s a solid five feet seven inches and 145 pounds. Her shins are pressed confidently into the fronts of her boots, slamming each gate. She’s clearly going to win; she almost always does. This time it’s by half a second, earning her the title of youngest U.S. national champion in history.
“She’d kill me,” one of the boys says.
“Dude, she’d kill most of us,” his buddy responds.
Shiffrin is a Vail native who until May was a student at Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, a sport-specific boarding school in northern Vermont that has produced 45 Winter Olympians. In this, her first year as a full-time member of the U.S. Ski Team, she’s already being called the next Lindsey Vonn. But, for her age, Shiffrin’s results are even more impressive.
Last season, as a 15-year-old competing in an all-ages minor league division of the World Cup, Shiffrin won the overall slalom title and the number 40 world ranking. Vonn and Mancuso, who both debuted on the World Cup at 16 and 15, respectively, finished their first seasons ranked 60th and 64th in slalom and GS. Vonn wonher first race at 20, but Shiffrin will be a threat to win in World Cup slalom races this year against the likes of Vonn and Germany’s Maria Höfl-Riesch.
Shiffrin has benefited from top coaching her entire life. At least half of that instruction has come from her mother, Eileen, a nurse and former top-ranked high school racer from western Massachusetts. Several coaches I spoke with expressed some frustration at Eileen’s constant presence—for example, at Winter Park it was Eileen and not her coach who was offering tips on the course.
“Everyone thinks I am sooo intense,” Eileen Shiffrin wrote me in an e-mail, but Mikaela brushes any criticism of her mother aside. “She has a good eye,” she says. “A lot of times, she’ll be able to tell me what I’m doing wrong before anybody else.”
Despite learning to ski, along with her older brother, Taylor, only a few chairlifts away from the deep powder of Vail’s back bowls, Shiffrin has preferred racecourses since she started competing at age six. “You could actually say that I didn’t enjoy skiing,” she told me. “But I loved racing in gates.”