Groomed for Success
At just 16, Mikaela Shiffrin is already being called the fastest skier the U.S. has ever produced. Can she back up that hype on the world stage?
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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.)
Mikaela Shiffrin on her way to victory at the U.S. Alpine Championships in April.Mikaela Shiffrin on her way to victory at the U.S. Alpine Championships in April.
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.”
In 2003, when Shiffrin was eight, her family moved from Vail to Lyme, New Hampshire, so her father, Jeff, could practice anesthesiology at Dartmouth Hospital. She was an early standout on the Lebanon Outing Club ski team. When she was 13, her parents enrolled her at Burke Mountain, and Shiffrin went on to win every junior title there is. At the 2010 Trofeo Topolino, a prestigious invitational in Italy, she got her first taste of international racing, dusting the world’s best 14-year-old slalom racers by 3.4 seconds.
“For her age, she’s the best I’ve seen,” says Burke Mountain headmaster Kirk Dwyer, who has mentored hundreds of racers, including Daron Rahlves, Jeremy Nobis, and A. J. Kitt. “We’ve had kids who are better natural athletes, but a lot of them stop working. Even if Mikaela is winning, and you tell her she could work a little harder, she will. She doesn’t want to know how great she is. She wants to know how she can improve.”
A few days before Shiffrin’s victory at Winter Park, I was sitting at a table at Five Mountain Tavern, chomping down on burgers and fries with Shiffrin and her parents. Jeff, who skied for Dartmouth University’s B team and acts as Shiffrin’s manager, explained how he and Eileen have nurtured their daughter’s talent.
He adheres to a theory laid out by Florida State psychology professor Anders Ericsson (and popularized by Outside contributing editor Daniel Coyle in his 2009 book The Talent Code). Essentially, Ericsson’s theory states that greatness isn’t so much a gift as it is the product of 10,000 hours of practice. “Mikaela is at about 5,000 hours,” Jeff told me. Among the activities that can help her close the gap, he added, are skiing, lifting weights, and analyzing video.
Though Shiffrin embraces her parents’ guidance, there’s one part of her father’s history she’s likely to distance herself from. In 1987, Jeff was involved in a blood-doping scandal with the U.S. Nordic Ski Team. Doug Peterson, the squad’s head coach and one of Jeff’s college friends, hired him to help the team’s top skier, Kerry Lynch, transfuse blood ahead of that year’s nordic combined world championships. When another coach on the team reported them, Lynch was stripped of the silver medal he’d won. There were no consequences for Shiffrin.
“When you’re young and inexperienced, you sometimes make less-than-ideal decisions,” Jeff says today. “It’s had a significant impact on how I try to help my kids know what to do. We’re anti-cheating, anti-doping, and anti-taking-an-unfair-advantage.”
Jeff acknowledges being worried that the incident might become a distraction for his daughter. After all, Vonn and Mancuso have both seen their fathers grab attention: Vonn’s estrangement from her father has been widely reported, and Mancuso’s dad spent four years in prison for running a $140 million drug ring.
But many observers, including Jim Taylor, a Denver-based sports psychologist who has interviewed Shiffrin, think the past is unlikely to throw her off. “Anything that she can control, she will control,” he says. “Anything she can’t control, she doesn’t focus on. I’ve worked with plenty of competent athletes who still buckle under pressure, but she’s trained herself to be resilient.”
Half an hour before her first run in Winter Park, Shiffrin showed that toughness when hardware on her ski boot broke, causing a scramble to fix it. Minutes later, during a warm-up run, her left ski popped off and she drove her right shoulder into the mountain. Most athletes would have been rattled.
“How are you doing, Mikaela?” one of her coaches asked, moments before she pushed out of the starting gate for her first run.
“I’m awesome,” Shiffrin replied. “I’m the awesomest!”