Mikaela Shiffrin Is Striving For Perfection

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Mikaela Shiffrin's style is sure-footed and rhythmic. Like the best slalom skiers, she sets up her turns high. She thinks a few turns ahead. And Shiffrin—who in Sochi last winter became the youngest racer ever to win Olympic gold in slalom and who thus spent several days as a cheery, effervescent staple of NBC programming—always looks calm. Even when a few hundred million eyes are on her and she's in the middle of a rare, but potentially devastating, mistake, as happened at the Olympics in February.

Not true, the 19-year-old says, laughing: "Pretty much every single run, in any race, ever, I'm scared to death."

She backpedals a moment later, perhaps embarrassed by her hyperbole. If nerves arise, she clarifies, it's when she's in the starting gate; it's that right-before-the-curtains-open feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has ever performed on stage or competed in a sport.

But Shiffrin has learned to fight that fear. If she lets in any anxiety at all, she says, it snowballs. So she uses a visualization technique. "I think of [my nerves] as these little, like, pellets that people are throwing at me. If I let one pellet hit me, then all the sudden the whole wad of them comes," says Shiffrin, who in the 2013-14 season alone competed in 16 World Cup races, placing in the top three in eight of them. (This season, she clinched a gold in her very first race.) "So whenever I start to feel nervous I'm like, Oh, put the shields up! And think about something else—anything else—just think about something else! And then I can block them again."

In the course, her anxiety is replaced by something else: self-laceration.

"When I'm in the course, I'm constantly saying stuff like, Crap, you just screwed up that turn, why'd you do that. Ah, you're so slow," she says, laughing. "I'm thinking the most negative, derogatory things— like, Your hair is probably all gross, too. It's my Mikaela-bashing time."

High-level racing is a neurotic's sport. It's about failure, about anticipating failure, about working around both the anticipation and the failure itself, which is of course inevitable and sometimes quite violent. Given how hard she is on herself, it's not surprising that Shiffrin is a skier who doesn't like mistakes. Not that any racer does. But some athletes—Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, most famously—have a much higher tolerance for error, and as a result they're more comfortable with taking the kinds of risks that can lead to big crashes as surely as they can to big wins. Not Shiffrin. "She never falls," her mother, Eileen, says. "When she does, we all go …" She mimes a face of terror.

Shiffrin's gold-flecked career, both on the slopes and off, is an ongoing project in either mitigating failure or avoiding it altogether. It's fitting that her most famous moment was a recovery. It happened during her winning run in Sochi. For a hundredth of a second, thrown by a change in pitch and turning too late, both her skis coming off the ground, she looked as if she might spin off the course entirely. Instead, she regained her balance and kept going, all as coolly as if it hadn't happened at all.

"The infamous recovery! Everybody comes up to me and the first thing they say is, 'You're that Mikaela girl? That recovery was amazing!'" she says when I bring it up. "It's almost like people remember that recovery more than they remember me winning the race or the medal or anything." She pauses. "Which I guess is good. It probably ends up being a positive thing, that I scared myself to death in the middle of my slalom course."

The mistake, it turns out, was the exact same one she'd made two weeks earlier. At the last slalom race before the Olympics, a victory could have locked up the second season title in slalom for Shiffrin. Instead, what Shiffrin calls a "snow snake," or a bump in the snow or terrain, "just came up and bit my ski," she says. Bounced off-balance, she lost both time and the title—although watching her at the moment of what racers call a "bobble," or an accidental (and often detrimental) unweighting of their skis, it's impressive that she stayed in the course at all. (You can see the moment, and her Herculean effort to stay in the course, at 0:38 here.)

So when the same thing happened at Sochi, she says, her internal monologue was nowhere near as calm as her outward appearance. "I was thinking, Oh my GOD! NO! You don't DO this here!" she says. And so she didn't.

When we meet on a sunny September afternoon in a midtown Manhattan hotel, she shakes my hand brightly and says, "Hi! I'm Mikaela." She's wearing blue sneakers, denim shorts, and a big smile. After our chat, she tells me, she's going to an interview at The New York Times. Then dinner with NBC. Then a Cantor Fitzgerald phone-a-thon.

Despite having already done more interviews than she can count, Shiffrin hasn't yet taken on the wariness of celebrity. Ask questions of anyone else who is even vaguely famous, and you get long pauses as answers are examined from every angle, searched for hidden explosive devices, and ultimately delivered via diplomatic pouch. But Shiffrin talks quickly, rarely pausing; the only time she makes a correction mid-course is to downgrade the word "sucks" to "stinks." She pokes fun at herself. She cracks up. Her voice rises or dips when she's doing an impression of, say, a previous media handler ("She was like, 'This is your schedule, you're going here now, OK we're late, we have to go, no more questions, we have to go, you have to change your shirt") or, even more so, of herself ("All of my friends are going to retire next year. I'm like 'No,'" she says, taking on a mock-whiny tone. "'I just started!'").

And so, when she mentions how all of the interviews have helped her climb out of her shell, I interrupt her. "You have a shell?"

"Well, I used to have a shell. I don't have a shell any more," she says, laughing. "It's out there. The shell's cracked."

Some of Shiffrin's frankness might have to do with the fact that she's still, in some ways, on the brink. She's not a face everyone recognizes. She may never be. Over the course of an hour, maybe 20 hotel guests will pass us on their way out the door. None will do a double take. None will ask for an autograph. On the streets, her Q rating barely nudges past that of the Knicks' backup point guard.

Olympic fame in America is a top-down phenomenon, though. In countries where it's far odder to watch well-padded men go thudding into each other over a prolate spheroid than to watch people scream down a hill on sharply tuned sticks, ski racers don't have to fight as much for the same recognition—or the sponsors—that they do here. Look at the rock-star treatment accorded to European racers, sometimes literally: In 2013, Slovenian racer Tina Maze released the music video "My Way Is My Decision," which took off with more than 700,000 views in two weeks.

That is why Lindsey Vonn is such a big deal. She was the first U.S. skier to be not merely a ski star, but a star. For Americans who had never ridden a chairlift in their lives—that is to say, most Americans—she made skiing something more than a quadrennial curio. And so, when a gruesome knee injury crushed Vonn's 2014 Olympic hopes, the media's response was prompt and predictable. Everyone began breathlessly speculating about "the next Lindsey." And all eyes turned to Shiffrin, who'd been blasting records out of her way as if they were fall-away gates on a course she's running. In March 2013, three days after her 18 th birthday, she clinched the World Cup slalom championship, making her the youngest slalom racing champion in World Cup history and the youngest U.S. woman ever to win a championship.

Yes, the next Lindsey could be Shiffrin. But the speed with which that pivot was made has more to do with the relative lack of stateside talent, not to mention the unfamiliarity of most Americans with the sport and its athletes, than with any actual similarities between the two women. "I think the whole rivalry thing is really ridiculous," Shiffrin herself said recently. "We don't even ski the same events."

When Vonn comes up now, Shiffrin speaks highly of her teammate, as she does of every skier mentioned in our conversation. She's happy her teammate chose to race another season despite her injury, she says, and she admires how Lindsey has, as she puts it, "headed the charge" for the U.S. ski team, both in terms of victories and recognition. But she makes it clear that she pictures a different career for herself. "Lindsey is …" Shiffrin pauses. It's one of the few times over the course of an hour that she'll do so. "She's such a star. And I don't think I could hold that much star power. I don't think I have it in me to be that primped out and gorgeous all the time. I don't think I can do the Sports Illustrated [swimsuit] covers, or the ESPN Body Issues—that kind of thing. I'm trying to carve my path away from the whole naked-lady persona. I'd much rather establish myself as a strong, powerful, young ski racer.

"I want people to see me and be like, 'She's strong, and powerful, and she's not just trying to sell her body," she adds. "If I post pictures in my bathing suit on Instagram or working out in my sports bra, it's like, it's because I have abs and I want to show them off. But it's not because I'm like, wanting to seduce anybody out there."

That alone may well mean that Shiffrin won't ever approach the celebrity of Vonn. But as a skier her trajectory continues ever upward. In this season's opening World Cup race—the giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 25—she clinched her first-ever non-slalom victory in the World Cup, sharing the gold medal for giant slalom with Austria's Anna Fenninger. She's the second American woman to have won the season opener since its 1993 start. And she has tied Picabo Street for the third-most World Cup victories by a U.S. woman.

In February, the World Ski Championships come to Vail-Beaver Creek, the first time in 15 years that a U.S. resort has hosted the end-of-season finale. The 70-nation, 13-day competition is expected to draw more than one billion viewers worldwide. If all goes according to plan, Shiffrin once again will be slaloming into your living room.

Shiffrin was born in Vail, Colo., in 1995. Both of her parents raced; so did her older brother, Taylor. During the day, Mikaela and Taylor would train. In the evenings, they'd watch World Cup racing videos with their parents. "We'd try to figure out what the World Cup racers were doing that we weren't doing," she says. "We were always trying to analyze, break down the sport, and get better."

Racing was, in Shiffrin's phrase, a "family project," and it remains one today. It's just that the "family" has gotten bigger, encompassing coaches, sponsors, an agent. It takes a village, I suggest. "A city," she says. "It takes a freakin' city!" Eileen Shiffrin, a toned blonde who shares her daughter's cornflower-blue eyes, goes with her almost everywhere; as Shiffrin and I talk, she lingers on the other side of the room, giving us plenty of space, before coming over to say hi.

Shiffrin credits her mother with everything from helping her stay on top of her diet to driving the five-plus hours to her races in Europe, where she is based for most of the season. "Having my mom with me makes it feel more like home," Shiffrin says. "And she helps me. We watch skiing together a lot. She's somebody I throw ideas against."

Shiffrin could have gone the more independent route. In that case, she says, her sport would have been soccer. For years, when she wasn't running gates, she was dribbling a soccer ball. "For a while, I was pretty even in my abilities with both. But I always was on the ski path. Soccer was just cross training for skiing," she says. "I don't know why that was. I never thought about it." This, understandably, frustrated her coach. He'd ask her parents: Why was she skiing? "My mom was like, 'I don't know!'", Shiffrin says. "Then you'd ask me, and I was like, What? Soccer? I'm sorry, what—that's a question? I loved soccer. I just wanted to be skiing."

The Shiffrin family moved to New Hampshire when Mikaela was 8. She and her older brother, Taylor, attended Burke Mountain Academy, one of Vermont's top ski schools. She started competing on the FIS circuit as soon as she met the minimum age requirement: 15.

At the FIS Junior World Ski Championships in February 2011, she placed third in slalom against the world's best 16- to 20-year-old racers. In November, at her fourth FIS race ever, she was on the podium again, clinching second in the giant slalom and, the next day, in the slalom.

Ten days later, she took on her first World Cup race, a slalom, in Aspen, competing against veterans like Marlies Schild, Maria Hoefl-Riesch, and Tina Maze. She was the youngest there. Out of the top 15 finishers, all were born in the 1980s.

Except for Shiffrin, that is. She placed eighth.

Today, watching Shiffrin slice through a slalom course—her upper body streaming downhill, legs swinging from side to side—even observers who know better can be lulled into thinking, Well, that doesn't look so hard. And then she gets to the bottom, and the crowd erupts, and it turns out that she's blown away women with 30 pounds and 10 years on her.

That's when you realize: It's not that the 5-foot-7, 145-pound skier wasn't working hard all along. It's that she was doing all of the right things so consistently—staying on her edges, starting her turns early, carving clean arcs around the gates—that you scarcely noticed the effort. Or even the speed.

Her seeming ease also hides the mental quickness required to make turns on ice at 35 mph. The event in which Shiffrin excels, slalom, is the most technical. It has the tightest turns and the strangest change-ups. It requires, in many ways, the fastest, most strategic thinking. "In slalom, it's easy to get the timing, because there is no time," she told reporters at a Vail Championships press event in October, dramatically underselling the strategy required for slalom, to say nothing of her own talents. "You just switch from edge to edge. But in G.S., there's a little bit more of a transition. There's more time in between gates. I've always kind of found myself twiddling my thumbs a little bit in between gates, trying to figure out when I need to start a new turn." Give Shiffrin an extra hundredth of a second in which she doesn't have to set up for, or launch herself into, a new turn, and she's not sure what to do with herself.

It may not be surprising, then, that Shiffrin always preferred technical training to free skiing. On the Vail team, the mornings would be spent free skiing, the afternoons running gates and drills. As a child, Shiffrin would call in sick for the mornings. She'd suddenly "get better" right before training.

Even now that racing is a full-time job, her preferences haven't changed. "You have a free day on the mountain," I put to her. "Do you run gates or free ski?"

She doesn't hesitate. "Run gates," she says. She laughs. She knows that this makes her sound different, perhaps even a little obsessive, compared with the other athletes; training sessions are, after all, work. Why would you choose work? "There's just something tangible about it," she says. "I can measure that. I can say, I was a second faster this run, and I know exactly why—or sometimes I don't know why, and it's a nice challenge to be able to figure that out. I always was much more intrigued by training than I was by free skiing." She pulls a face, poking fun at her younger self. "I was 5 years old, and I'm like, I'm skiing in gates today! How is [free] skiing going to benefit me?"

She may laugh at herself now, but 5-year-old Shiffrin knew what she was doing. She has probably spent as much time in gates, particularly slalom gates, as have the competitors 10 years her senior. That's been a big part of her advantage. And it's a big reason that someone who graduated high school in May 2013 and just took her SATs last spring doesn't feel the least bit intimidated at the top of the mountain.

Not even by Tina Maze, whom Shiffrin calls "the girl that everybody's scared of" and "the beast." At 31, Maze has been on the World Cup circuit since Shiffrin was 3 years old. She has won all five World Cup disciplines—in a single season. The world's 2013 champion in super-G, she is the reigning Olympic champion in downhill and giant slalom.

Shiffrin's response? "I was always ready to take her on," she says. "I was like, I've got my eyes on you. And I'd challenge her. I think she thought that was funny. Because when she challenges people, they're like, OK, you win! I was like No, I'll climb all over you. I'm a li'l monkey. I've got you on lockdown, Maze." She laughs.

She may be poking fun at her own self-assurance. But she's hardly delusional. Throughout the 2012-2013 season, she and Maze went head-to-head for the World Cup slalom championship. It came down to the last race, in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, in March. After the first run, it looked as if Maze might clinch the title. She came in first; Shiffrin, more than a second behind, lagged in fifth.

Then came run No. 2:

There she is, at her best. Her feet are so quick around each gate she almost looks like she's dancing: no hesitation, no mistakes. Just watch the calm energy with which she goes into the combination, a section of gates set up to throw the normal rhythm of the course, at 0:30. Or how she sets up for her turn at 0:45; she hasn't even finished cross-blocking her last gate yet, but she's already looking to the combination, and her skis are already finishing that turn and pointing to the new one.

She beat Maze by a second and a half, and she won the championship—the first U.S. woman to do so since 1984, more than a decade before she was born. More importantly, she did so with a mix of elegant precision and assertiveness, the twin requirements for a slalom star.

And yet there's a point at which a calm approach becomes a conservative one. In the first slalom of this season, which took place on Nov. 15 in Levi, Finland, Shiffrin came in 11th, her worst finish since last December. Maze won the race.

When you watch the video of Shiffin's run, it's easy to see why:

In a side-by-side comparison of Maze and Shiffrin, the two are neck-and-neck until about 40 seconds in. As the camera pans out at 0:45, you can see them battling their way down the steep. Here's where their styles, and thus their times, diverge: As Maze pivots quickly from one edge to the other, Shiffrin seems to skid slightly at each turn's end, scrubbing both snow and speed; she also stands up straighter than her competitor, bouncing her more into the backseat and out of the forward, aggressive stance and angles that power a serious carve. (Take a look at 0:54, for example, where Maze's upper body remains vertical even as her feet are at a 45-degree angle away, while Shiffrin's torso is tilting with her turn, giving her skis less of an edge). That was all it took for Maze to gain 1.18 seconds on Shiffrin—in ski racing, an eternity.

"It was like I was sleeping," she later told Ski Racing magazine. "I took the competition for granted a little bit."

With characteristic candor, Shiffrin wrote on Facebook later on the same day: "I'm not happy with my skiing today, not even a little bit—I don't have any excuses, the hill was in perfect condition, I had amazing support, we were all fired up, and I skied far below my potential. So now I go back to the basics—always looking to improve, being positive, and having fun skiing fast. It's a bit of a reality check." On the next slalom race, Sunday's event at Aspen, Shiffrin fared far better, placing fifth. Still not her best. But her recovery was already underway.

The one major crash that Shiffrin remembers was in a terrain park at New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain. It was 2007. She was 11 years old. This was after her family had moved to the East Coast, shortly after she started skiing at Burke. She was free-skiing with other racers, mostly boys, on a powder day.

Eager to show off her comfort with big terrain, she flew off the jumps. Meanwhile, the boys complained about landing too flat, getting their knees jostled. "And I was like, Well, that's because you're wusses! I was being such a little twerp."

On the second run, she took all three jumps without stopping, tucking the entire way. On the last jump, she got so much air she overshot the landing by 100 yards, she says, "and just landed flat on the ground … I thought I'd shattered my elbows and broken my neck." Instead, she had a broken wrist. She hasn't taken a major jump since.

Her relative discomfort in the air is one reason she hasn't gone for the speed events, downhill and super-G. Yet. That might change this season: She wants to do her first super-G race, she says, which would be her first speed event on the World Cup circuit. (She has raced two FIS, but not World Cup, super-G races this season, coming in 15th and 16th). Compared with the technical events of slalom and G.S., speed events are totally different beasts. They're faster (last year, a French downhiller broke the 100 mph barrier), the turns are bigger, the terrain steeper and tougher, and even the littlest hill or slightest lip are built to send a skier skyward.

The problem, for Shiffrin, isn't the speed. "I love going fast. I always want to go faster," she says, leaning forward eagerly. "And it's nice because, obviously, with super-G and downhill, the hill is blocked off. It's just you on the hill. You don't need to really worry about something getting in your way ... That's probably what I'm most excited for, is to just be like, Woo! Wind in my hair, don't care!" But, she notes, the other top "speed girls" have been running the same super-G and downhill tracks for the past eight years. She won't have that advantage.

So mostly, she says, she's just trying to focus on her G.S. "Then, if I'm feeling pretty good, it might be like, OK—let's do a super-G."

In October, she won her first G.S. A World Cup super-G doesn't seem all that far off, and neither does Lindsey Vonn's mantle.

Shiffrin knows that she won't be racing forever. Nor does she want to race forever. She admires Marlies Schild, the "slalom queen" who retired at the end of last season, for knowing when to quit. "It was really admirable that she did that—came back from her injury, believed in herself, did the whole inspiring act, and then knew when to say, 'Stop,'" Shiffrin says.

Still, Shiffrin has an entire racing career ahead of her—perhaps another 15 years on the slopes, if the skis stay on the right side of the gates. Thinking about the next step might be premature. Not for Shiffrin. "In order to make money in ski racing, you need sponsors. And in order to have the sponsors, you need followers," she tells me. "I'm constantly checking how many followers I have … so I can create a platform, establish myself, and then when I'm done with skiing, maybe move onto something that's, maybe, more important to more of the world. Skiing's really important to me, and it's close to my heart, but a lot of people are like, 'You are wasting your time skiing down a mountain,' you know?"

Not really, I say. But I can imagine. She shrugs. "I don't take offense to that," she says. "Everybody has their own opinion. I saw ski racing, and it's just something I wanted to do. I wanted to be the best." But now, she says, she's starting to see it as a springboard into the next thing.

What would that be?

With that question, the teenager emerges. "There are so many. So many causes!" she says animated. She likes science and the environment. She also loves interior design. Maybe she can combine them, like with a mix of architecture or interior design and environmental engineering. She's also taking a personal finance class; maybe she'll be a financial adviser. She doesn't know. "I want to be able to do something really powerful that's going to help the world at some point," she says.

This, after all, is how things can look when you're 19, never mind a wunderkind—like the world is nothing but virgin snow, waiting to be carved up by the edges of your skis. If her goals seem unattainably numerous, the thought process behind them is the same one that has brought her all this success thus far. She's keeping her stance cool and assertive, looking a few gates ahead, starting her turns early, softening her knees to absorb whatever bump comes her way.

Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.

Top photo via Getty