Mikaela Shiffrin Does Not Have Time for a Beer
Or a movie, or a game of spoons. The alpine racer isn't dusting the competition by slacking off. She's putting in the work, and then she's taking a nap.
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Mikaela Shiffrin slept great.
She always sleeps great. Then she ate two fried eggs, plus toast, no coffee, as she does every morning. Now it’s 9 a.m. on this bright June Thursday, the fourth day of the third week of her six-week early-summer training block. Her schedule prescribes a morning strength session, so off we drive from her parents’ house in Avon, Colorado, to the Westin Beaver Creek, where she works out when she’s in town.
First: a warm-up on a spin bike. Ten minutes, moving her legs in circles in her Lululemon shorts, much like half the women here are moving their legs in circles in their Lululemon shorts—no big deal. Then we go into a small glass-doored room labeled MIKAELA’S CORNER. The Westin didn’t know what to do with this space, so the hotel gave it to Mikaela so she could do Olympic lifts. It’s an asset for the hotel to have this tanned, blond, 22-year-old ski goddess training here—though she does, let’s just say, ruffle some patrons’ senses of inner peace. Her body fills out her skin in a way that just looks fuller and better than anybody else. It’s like she’s a freshly blown-up balloon and the rest of us have been hanging around losing air for a few days or weeks.
But in this private back room, there’s no one cowering in self-hatred at the sight of Mikaela’s epic, confidence-destroying legs except her father who, of course, feels not self-hatred but pride. Back in their youth, both Jeff Shiffrin and Mikaela’s mother, Eileen, raced alpine. When I ask Jeff, who is an anesthesiologist and has come to chat with me on his way to work, how they did it, how they managed to raise this specimen, perhaps the best skier in the world right now, on track to become maybe the best skier of all time, he says it’s all very simple. “If you have a kid who is going to a ski race, you go to the lodge beforehand so you can say, ‘Here’s the nearest bathroom, here’s where you put your backpack,’ so the kid can be better prepared and have less stress. At age six, you teach her how to juggle, for coordination and focus, and at seven you teach her how to unicycle, for balance.” There: now you know.
Mikaela wraps up her set. Papa Shiffrin, who handles the logistics of his daughter’s ski racing and refers to himself as “Sure Pa,” goes to the hospital to work. So far, so good. Then Mikaela moves out of her corner into the gym proper, and for a while all is still well in the Westin. The other gymgoers, both locals and hotel guests, continue pleasantly about their golden Vail days. Some recognize Mikaela, but whether they do or don’t doesn’t really matter—this isn’t a story about fame, or even winning, exactly. It’s a story about being the kind of person who not only knows how to win (that’s not really the hard part), but can execute on the never-ending tedium required. Still, to get it out there: Mikaela has won 31 World Cup races, the 2017 World Cup overall title, four World Cup slalom titles, three World Championship slalom races, and an Olympic gold medal in slalom. And she’s on track to win more races and more championships than any skier ever. Lindsey Vonn may be only nine races away from catching up to Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s record 86 World Cup victories, but Mikaela already has 24 more World Cup wins than Vonn did at her age and three more than Stenmark did when he was 22.
Mikaela tries to keep her success low-key and her mind not on beating others but on being better tomorrow than she is today. After she won gold in Sochi in slalom, she did lose her focus for a few seconds and told a reporter that she wanted to win five medals in the upcoming 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Who doesn’t?) But then she backpedaled and started talking again about putting in the work and staying strong.
Mikaela’s quads look capable of leg-pressing entire alpine villages. Her glutes, halfway up her five-foot-seven frame, are abrupt, definitive forces of nature, the Rockies rising out of the Midwest. But it’s her concentration and discipline, and her ability to turn physical instruction into action, that are the real killers. Today, as almost every day, she isn’t working out with a partner or coach. There’s no minder, no entourage, no fuss. She does have an esoteric piece of gear called a GymAware PowerTool, which costs $2,200, looks like a small bomb, and measures lifting metrics like bar angle and velocity. But other than that, she’s just an extraordinarily fit young woman with an iPhone, a silver watch, a few turquoise anklets, some very cute braids, and a list of reps and sets to get through.
Still, slowly, quietly, all around her, people start flipping out, needing—and failing—to adjust to the fact that here in this gym is this person with these legs and this ass who is flawlessly, unassumingly executing maneuvers that none of them could do with her precision and grace if they made it the focus of their lives. A man goes to pick up a kettlebell from a rack behind Mikaela, who is doing seismic squat jumps, and just melts down, worrying loudly about disrupting her to the point where she has to pause and comfort him. “No, you’re fine. You’re fine,” she says. When she loads a bar with 100 pounds, holds her squat for 45 seconds, and then explodes up into space, another guy bursts out, “That’s amazing! I can’t believe you can do that! Holy Moses!”
Mikaela does her triple jumps, her agility drills. None of the exercises are that complex. We can all do this stuff, sort of—just like we can all keep ourselves from eating the entire bag of chips.
Eventually, Eileen comes in, after her own workout, wearing Hokas and basketball shorts. Mikaela is on the U.S. Ski Team, but she’s also on Team Shiffrin, and her mother serves as her 24/7 unpaid coach. Eileen, it bears noting, does not think Mikaela does everything perfectly. It’s her job—not as mother but as coach—to find flaws. She scrutinizes Mikaela’s every movement (often repeatedly, forward and backward, in slow motion, on video), searching for imperfections and ways to crush those imperfections out.
Eileen is also here to make sure that I don’t intrude too much on Mikaela’s two-hour workout and thus keep Mikaela from getting home to her parents’ house in time for her nap. In the elevator to the parking garage, I ask Mikaela how she wants our day to go.
I could take her out to lunch or dinner. “I need to go on my ride later,” she says. Then she adds, with just the slightest hint of an edge, “I don’t know what’s on your schedule.”
The tone is understandable. Given that Mikaela is the U.S.’s designated darling in the run-up to the 2018 Olympics, there have been a lot of nonathletic obligations: photo and video shoots (and attendant hair and makeup) for sponsors Barilla, Bose, Red Bull, and Visa, interviews for other media. But Eileen suggests that, even amid these obligations, there may be room for improvement. “I think you should be nicer,” she says.
A word about naps: Mikaela loves to nap. She also loves Bode Miller, and she’s seen his movie, Flying Downhill, at least 20 times. And she remains so crushed out that even now, when Bode congratulates her on races—for instance, he called her name and hooted at her when she was walking through the crowd on the way to collect her World Cup overall title last March—she says, “I still can’t believe he knows who I am.”
But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the afternoon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
Last summer, while Mikaela was in Park City, she overheard some of her teammates in the lunchroom talking about what they did for fun the weekend before and what they might do this upcoming one. “You want to go float the river?” Mikaela recalls one saying to another. “Let’s get a group of people together.”
This mystifies Mikaela. “That takes freaking five hours to float the river,” she tells me. “And I’m like, honestly… Do you forget how wonderful it feels to lie in bed and not be doing something in like the two seconds of spare time you have?”
Her dedication causes some tension, even passive aggression. If you’re focused at the expense of being social, and you win all the time, by huge margins, and are blatantly ambitious, you’re considered, well, standoffish. And you’re going to catch shade.
According to Mikaela, the form this takes in Park City is: teammates will invite her to join them for a movie or a party or whatever and then add, with the faintest whiff of sarcasm, “if that fits in your schedule.” Mikaela gets it. That dynamic has dogged her since high school. The day she moved into her dorm room at Burke Mountain Academy, a boarding school in Vermont for elite skiers, her roommate, Brayton “Bug” Pech, remembers saying to her, “You seem like a really nice girl and all, but I just have to hate you when you get in the start gate.” Bug, now one of Mikaela’s best friends, told me about a morning when the school canceled classes because there was such amazing powder, and while Bug and all the normal (that is, truly excellent) skier-students were out on the hill, freeskiing in the magnificent blower pow, stoked out of their minds, there was Mikaela, on the training hill by herself, working on traverse drills and ankle flexion.
Bug quickly learned that the path to personal happiness around Mikaela is to give yourself a break for being mortal and stand back in awe. “You have to put her in her own category,” she says. “She’s an anomaly. Most people with Mikaela’s talent just rely on their talent. That’s why, when the competition gets really serious, they fall apart.” Mikaela was different. “I knew she was going to be special, because she was going to make herself into something special.”
Skiing is an incredibly complex sport. Unlike, say, swimming or gymnastics, athletes don’t just have to learn to control their bodies. The terrain is always changing, the surface is always changing. “The training is very deliberate, and then when the training peaks, the skiing becomes more about feeling,” says Kirk Dwyer, who was Mikaela’s main coach at Burke and a major influence in her life. “You can think about it like going up a chairlift.” What he means is that you’re moving along, training, making progress in one mode, and then, to perform, you have to make a 180-degree switch. Mikaela arrived at Burke well suited to the process. “Her mentality is similar to virtuoso musicians like Isaac Stern, always trying to play better,” Dwyer says. “She’s very intrinsically motivated. She sets the bar high. She focuses.”
Mikaela won the national slalom title at 16. Then she started winning in giant slalom. Now she’s adding speed events, winning her first alpine combined race—one super-G run, one slalom—earlier this year. She has won events by two or three seconds, in a sport where one-tenth of that is considered a decent margin. This is eminently—and maybe even unavoidably—hateable if you’re a female American alpine ski racer not named Julia Mancuso or Lindsey Vonn. Mikaela, like Vonn, has a custom training program in part because she brings money and glory to U.S. skiing and is considered the future of the sport. (None of the American men have a custom program.)
Mikaela’s quads look capable of leg-pressing entire alpine villages. Her glutes are the Rockies rising out of the Midwest. But it’s her concentration and discipline that are the real killers.
“It’s hard to find someone who is really genuinely happy for you if you are having success and they’re not,” Mikaela says. She knows that’s only human. “I just try to be as nice as possible and make fun of myself and laugh at the jokes.” But the slacking off, by which Mikaela means floating the river or having a few beers and playing spoons on a Friday night—she has little patience for that. Champions put in the work. Champions prioritize the effort to get better, every day. She makes each decision in her life only after she’s weighed whether or not it will help her achieve. She has a new boyfriend, a French ski racer. She’s going to meet him in Paris. But she won’t visit again if she can’t finish her training block strong. “Don’t worry about it and you’ll be great, said nobody ever,” she tells me just before her nap.
Mikaela has a recurring dream. She shows up at the mountain for a race, puts on her boots and helmet, then realizes her clothes are disappearing. So she takes off her boots and helmet, dresses in her thermals and speed suit, then buckles on her boots and helmet again. But by the time she’s done this, her speed suit has flown off. This goes on: one piece of gear donned, another vanished. Eventually, she just starts running to the chairlift so she won’t miss her start. Every step she takes, the hill gets steeper and steeper until she’s falling off a cliff.
To say that Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin are dedicated and passionate skier parents does not even begin to cover it. The Shiffrins did not just click Mikaela’s tiny boots into bindings at age three and drift down the hill with her, snowplowing; they began methodically coaching her and her elder brother, Taylor. “Mom and Dad said, ‘Let’s do this: ski to that tree, in this position, as fast as you can,’ ” said Taylor, who just got an MBA at the University of Denver, where he ski-raced during undergrad, and now works on the business side of tech startups. “There were actually very specific drills about body position: head in front, knees to skis, pretend you’re holding a tray of hot chocolate and try not to spill it. Let’s do it again, and again, and again.”
Eileen started training her daughter on gates when she was six. The next year, Mikaela began racing. Soon after, she lost control near the end of a run, spun around in a complete circle, and still won the race by ten or twenty seconds. A parent of another skier turned to Eileen and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Eileen is casual and friendly, offering me leftovers at a dining table that has family snapshots hanging above one end and Mikaela’s five huge World Cup globes lined up on a credenza nearby. She’s smart and game for anything (including studying German and chemistry alongside Mikaela while her daughter was finishing her high school diploma; now the two watch Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods together). She’s also a serious athlete. As a girl, Eileen spent three hours a day hitting a tennis ball against a wall. When not practicing her ground strokes, she watched as many matches as she could to study technique. She brings her intense commitment to practice—along with a belief that if you study, you can master anything—to all parts of her life.
For instance, when Taylor was in sixth grade, he tried out for the soccer team but didn’t make the cut. Eileen bought four soccer nets for the family basement, ordered a complete set of World Cup soccer DVDs, and spent every evening that winter in the basement with Taylor, running him through drills. At tryouts the following fall, the coach thought Taylor played like Neymar’s little brother. “What on earth have you been doing?” he asked Eileen.
Eileen is not paid by U.S. Ski and Snowboard, but she’s recognized by the organization as one of Mikaela’s coaches, along with team coaches Mike Day and Jeff Lackie. She approaches her job with the sense of purpose and attention to detail of a forensic scientist at a murder scene. “You have to study the sport like you would study precalc or physics,” she explains. “You have to be willing to think about it that in-depth.” Eileen will, say, spend an hour or so in the evening with Mikaela watching tapes of Marlies Schild, the 2011 slalom world champion, asking questions: Is she keeping her shoulders facing out at this point in the turn? Or is she not really facing her shoulders out but driving her outside shoulder around? How much separation does she have between her upper and lower body? How is she using her ankles and knees?
Few athletes’ parents have the time, inclination, or athletic experience to do this, and that has given Mikaela “a pretty big advantage, almost an unfair advantage,” Eileen admits. She insists that her parental contribution ends there, that she has not also bequeathed to her daughter a significant competitive streak.
I ask Eileen what I think is a simple question: When did Mikaela become faster than her?
“With skiing?” she says. “I don’t know. Mikaela says when she was 11 or 12—which is… no. But I don’t race against her. I never really compared or had that situation. I still ski pretty fast, faster than a lot of people are comfortable with me skiing. They are always like, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a helmet?’ So, I’m not sure.”
“But when did you cross the threshold to saying, ‘My kid is a better athlete than me’?” I rephrase.
“Better skier. Well, probably when she was…” Her voice trails off.
To be clear, we are talking about 2017 World Cup overall champion Mikaela Shiffrin. “I don’t know. I’m not really sure,” Eileen says. “That’s such a hard question. I never really think about it.”
On the slopes, Mikaela steers her body like a Nascar driver classically trained at the Bolshoi Ballet—with such precision, grace, and control that it’s hard to comprehend the power required to hold your lower body at a 30-degree angle to the ground while keeping your torso upright, all while moving down iced ruts at 80 miles per hour.
U.S. Ski Team coach Jeff Lackie says, “Mikaela separates herself from the field by using every inch of the turn to extract speed, building momentum whenever possible. You never tire of watching athletic genius.”
Right now, Mikaela’s focusing on turning before the gate. Pretty much nobody can turn before the gate. If you think about turning before the gate, you’ve missed turning before the gate and you’ve probably missed turning before the next gate, too. The window of time and the acreage of snow in which to perform the maneuver are just too small. Mikaela recognizes this. She knows the effort to turn before the gate is basically a Zen exercise. You keep working toward it. You keep not getting it. You stay committed to the practice.
Wanting to work the hardest is not just stealth-killer goody-two-shoes behavior. Skiing fast is the result of preparation and flow. This may be the key to success in all sports, maybe all of life.
Mikaela is a really nice, smart person—I feel compelled to say that. She’s thoughtful and grounded, under her beautiful skin and all that muscle, and when I tell her I want to find a way to share the normal 22-year-old side of her life, she gamely takes me through her Instagram feed. We look at a story posted by an actress from Glee. Another posted by a cliff-jumping champion also sponsored by Red Bull. A third from a tawny-skinned fashion blogger. “She’s #tangoals,” Mikaela says. “I would get skin cancer if I was that tan all the time. But still.” Later we watch a video of Julia Mancuso training on a beach with her hunky husband. “This is not OK. I would love to be on the beach,” Mikaela says. “If I could just dip my toes in an ocean for a second, I would be over the moon.” I point out that she could fly to Maui, train on the sand, and dip her entire body in the sea. But as soon as the words are out of my mouth, I regret them. Telling Mikaela now, in the months leading up to the Olympics, that she could fly to Hawaii and train there is really not all that different than her teammates saying, if that fits in with your schedule. It’s disrespectful—subtly so, perhaps. But still. The remark fails to honor who Mikaela is.
Mikaela is gracious and lets it slide.
Lindsey Vonn has always worked harder than anybody else on the hill. On Instagram, Mikaela finds a post of Vonn doing one of the same core exercises she did this morning—plank position, feet suspended from a rubber band, body stiff in a linear plane. Only Vonn’s hands are not anchored to a box, as Mikaela’s were; they’re clutching rings. Mikaela laughs nervously. “Oh, that’s like what I did today, only twice as hard.” But she still wants to try it.
Wanting to work the hardest is not just stealth-killer goody-two-shoes behavior. Skiing fast is the result of preparation and flow. This may be the key to success in all sports, maybe all of life. To win you need to work the hardest, because knowing you’ve worked the hardest is what will allow you to believe in yourself and stay out of your own way in a race. This idea is the core lesson of The Inner Game of Tennis, published in 1974 and written by W. Timothy Gallwey, one of the most influential sports training books ever written. “The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills,” Gallwey writes. “He discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.”
Eileen loves this book. Kirk Dwyer made all the skiers he coached at Burke read it. Only if you’ve done enough training, only if you’ve tried hard beforehand, can you fully relax during a race.
The trouble, for most of us, starts with the fact that we don’t always do all the work. We don’t do as much as Mikaela, or Lindsey Vonn, and this is not just a technical or physical problem. It undermines our self-confidence. Mikaela makes us see our weaknesses, our lack of full commitment. We want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs. Maybe we’re scared to try that hard. Maybe we don’t know how. Almost none of us truly give 100 percent. We give 98 percent, or 95 percent, maybe less. Then, even though we may have dedicated our lives to a sport, even though we may be among the best in the world, we go out there and lose. Or we go out there and get hurt. “You don’t want to be second-guessing yourself on the way down,” Mikaela says. “And you don’t want to be skiing at 110 percent.” If you stretch yourself too thin, you snap. Mikaela likes to race well within her ability. “One of my theories is that if I just train more than everybody and I’m strong and I watch more video and understand the sport better, my 90 percent will be enough.”
Enough so that, come February, she can fly to South Korea, fall asleep on the mountain, and win.