Mikaela Shiffrin’s Only Competition Is Mikaela Shiffrin
The fastest woman on skis isn't slowing down
A great deal of ski racing, Shiffrin told me last summer at a photo studio in Los Angeles, is logistics management. How do you get thirty or forty pairs of skis, seven pairs of ski boots, plus speed suits and poles and helmets and goggles across Europe, during winter, on time, without losing anything? It’s a challenge that doubles or triples if you plan to race in all six of skiing’s disciplines, which almost nobody else does, because that’s crazy.
Two days before the World Championships began last February, in Are, Sweden, Shiffrin had raced and won a slalom in Maribor, Slovenia. Only a few skiers planned to race both the Maribor slalom and the super-G in Are, but Shiffrin was one of them, which meant she needed to charter a plane from Slovenia to Sweden to give herself a day of training before the World’s race began. She arrived on time, but her coaches and much of her equipment did not. That meant she and her mother, Eileen, had to go on a hunt to find basic pieces of equipment, including gloves and a pair of goggles that complied with International Ski Federation rules. She won the super-G, but other problems arose: although her coaches eventually arrived, their bags did not, and they needed to rent ski clothes. Then Shiffrin got sick.
Every professional skier races through a cold now and then, but this wasn’t just a cold. Shiffrin had a chest infection, and it was causing her coughing fits. It left an impression: I had arrived at the L.A. photo studio with a set of detailed questions, but she spent roughly 30 minutes telling me about the cough. It started with dizziness, a fever, and weakness. “Every time I moved, my heart rate would spike. I’d breathe harder, and then I’d have a coughing fit,” she said. She began to fear even limited movement. Before the slalom, lying on a bench in the ski lodge, she had a fit so violent that it knocked her over and left her convulsing on the floor underneath a table.
Shiffrin skied the first slalom run at 70 percent effort, she said, which put her 0.15 seconds out of first. In Are, slalom racers come off the chairlift, take a left turn, and ski down a cat track and under a bridge to the start gate. Before the second run, as Shiffrin approached the bridge with her physiotherapist and Eileen, another coughing fit started, this time with a twist: she coughed so hard she threw up. (Beginning around 2016, Shiffrin started puking before important races. But this vomiting, she told me, was different from vomiting caused by nerves.)
Eileen is Shiffrin’s mother but also her best friend, and it must be said, she’s not a softie. After the vomiting concluded, Eileen told Shiffrin that she didn’t need to race if she didn’t want to. That was a shock. Inside ski racing, a World Championship title is more coveted than an Olympic medal, and Eileen is often an unyielding coach. Her permission to sit out the event took some of the pressure off. Suddenly a chest infection didn’t seem like such a big deal, and Shiffrin decided to race. She won by more than half a second. It was a lesson in resilience.
A year earlier, before the Olympics in South Korea, Shiffrin made the mistake of mentioning that she might like to win five gold medals, which was never going to be an easy goal. There was the media, which is a given, and also Shiffrin’s nervy stomach, and a crappy stretch of weather that wrecked a carefully planned race schedule. She started out strong, winning the opening giant slalom. Then a series of wind-related delays arrived, she backed out of the downhill and the super-G, flubbed a gate in slalom, and missed the top spot in super combined (two races of slalom, and a run of super-G) by nine-tenths of a second. She won a gold and a silver—not bad—but didn’t come close to five medals. “The Olympics were a big success,” she said. “But there’s a little piece of my heart that aches for the slalom race and wonders what I could have done better.”
Then came Shiffrin’s 2018–19 season, during which she won 17 World Cup races (a record), stood atop the podium in four different events, captured World Championship gold medals in both the slalom and the super-G (also a first), and won both the overall title as well as discipline titles in slalom, giant slalom, and super-G. Sometimes my eyes glaze over when I see statistics like these: Shiffrin wins races at a pace so frantic it’s hard to comprehend.
One could be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that her historic season owed something to post-Olympic relaxation, which allowed Shiffrin to regain her flow after briefly misplacing it in South Korea. Well, that’s not what happened.
“The intensity, truthfully, has gone up,” her coach Jeff Lackie said. Global fame and the addition of super-G and downhill to her race schedule have added hassle and stress, and they make it tougher to do everything right. “Any time you’ve achieved the success that she’s achieved, the stakes go up, the expectations go up,” he said. “Suddenly, you’ve got Bode Miller weighing in on your career, someone you grew up idolizing. As focused and intense as she is, it’s hard not to be aware of that stuff. It’s not detrimental, but it’s something that needs to be managed.”
Shiffrin has given these pressures a characteristically positive frame. Bearing down and focusing is familiar, and therefore calming, she told me. “If I have to focus harder, that’s never been a problem for me,” she said. “Adding more events is a challenge—it’s like a puzzle.”
In person, Shiffrin is about what you’d expect if you follow her on Instagram: bubbly, charming, intelligent, self-aware. She answers questions not in complete sentences but complete paragraphs, and often in story form. She loves talking about ski racing.
You don’t have to look too closely to see that Shiffrin does a few things different than her World Cup competitors. No surprise there—since her debut in 2011, she’s won 60 World Cup races and two Olympic gold medals, and she’s well on her way to becoming the best ski racer in the history of the sport. You don’t come by that kind of dominance by doing things the way they’ve always been done.
To take one example: Shiffrin and Lackie are obsessive about logging data from her workouts. This might seem like a small thing—haven’t athletes always kept training logs?—except that in ski racing, it’s not. There are gym sessions to keep track of (a lot of them), plus days spent on the hill, plus data from the various recording devices Shiffrin uses, including a heart-rate monitor and a device that measures the velocity at which she performs squats. (Why is this important? Slalom racing requires that Shiffrin contract her leg muscles faster than during downhill races, and the velocity monitor allows her to tune her muscle coordination appropriately.) When we met in Los Angeles, she told me she had just begun using a gadget that she places underneath her mattress to measure sleep quality.
Putting together this mountain of data allows Shiffrin and Lackie to figure out exactly how hard to push, and when, and when to back off. Some of the data is subjective, some isn’t. Lackie analyzes the input with data-visualization software, but if Shiffrin forgets to log her workouts, even for a day, the whole thing becomes a bit worthless. The point is, even data management is a lot of work. Hardly anyone else is willing to do it, and it’s another place where Shiffrin is working harder than almost everyone she races against.
In the past 20 or so years, we’ve learned a lot about how to mold great athletes. Winning at the global level takes a lot more than just talent, especially if you’re in it for the long haul. As a result, there isn’t much low-hanging fruit left in professional sports—no room for the footloose rogues like Bode Miller. To be the best at ski racing means being the most physically talented, the most emotionally mature, and the hardest working in the gym. It means training with the best coaches, skiing on the fastest skis, and practicing turns from the moment you step off the chairlift to the moment you get back on it. Shiffrin is famous for her consistency: she never misses gates during training, never skips a day in the gym, never forgets her nap, never gets lazy about data logging, never loses a whole season to injury. Does this make Shiffrin an innovator? Well, nobody has ever won as much as quickly as she has, in as many different kinds of races. Winning that much is in fact quite innovative—it’s brand new.
Working with Shiffrin has made Lackie a better coach, he says. Because she’s so consistent in her approach, the moment she stops improving, he knows it’s because he made a mistake. The reason Shiffrin wins so often isn’t that she makes better turns than anyone else in ski racing, though of course she sometimes does—she certainly can. It’s that from turn to turn, she’s always pretty good. Other racers are mostly pretty good, and then, for a second or two, they’re slightly less good. That’s where Shiffrin gets the edge.