This is Mikaela Shiffrin’s most impressive season yet. She broke Marlies Schild’s record for most lifetime slalom wins. She became first skier, male or female, to win World Cup races in all six alpine disciplines. And the first one to claim the World Championship title in any single discipline four times in a row. So far, she’s won 14 World Cup races, tying the record for the most-ever in one season. (She has a few more chances to break that record, including Saturday’s slalom in the Czech Republic.)
Despite all of that history-making, the 23-year old from Vail, Colorado, insists she’s trying to keep the accolades out of her head and focus on her turns. But when you’re bashing records this constantly, how is that even possible?
Last week, over FaceTime from her hotel room in the Czech Republic, Shiffrin and I talked gross eggs, 1.5-hour naps and why walking away from the last Olympics with two medals left a sour taste in her mouth. (This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.)
Let’s take it back. 2014, after you burst into the public eye, for most people, with your gold-winning slalom at the Sochi Olympics, probably feels like a long time ago for you…
But also, like, yesterday. It’s sort of funny how that works.
Is there a particular way in which you think you’ve changed since then?
I would say, yes and no. My personality is probably quite similar. Actually, I hope it’s similar. But I’ve come out of my shell a little bit more, hugely due to Sochi. I sort of had to after winning that medal. There was just a normal amount of media after winning a gold—but for me it felt like a lot. Since then, each year it’s been gradually increasing.
When I was 16 years old doing book reports in school, I was afraid to speak in front of a class at Burke Mountain Academy—at a “big class” which was a total of 12 students, maybe. I was afraid to get up and speak and present a book in front of them! So that kind of stuff, that’s changed. But my personality, the things I find funny—I’m still addicted to videos of cats doing funny things, and Friends. So in some ways I haven’t changed at all.
How have you been able to maintain that kind of normalcy with such a nutty schedule?
It’s always been really important to me to spend time with my family when I get a chance. And obviously those chances are getting fewer and farther between. My mom travels with me and my coaches, but otherwise my dad is sometimes able to make it over here to Europe for some races. During the summer I might see my brother every once in a while. But it’s still about trying to get back to the roots. Every spring I try to go visit my nana. It’s sort of like going off the grid—laying back, having a simple breakfast, reading a little bit, playing Scrabble with her.
At the end of the season it’s always like—whoa. It’s like, there have been all of these emotional highs and emotional lows. Then you have to adjust to not having a race next weekend, or this weekend, or tomorrow, or every other day. And one of the things that actually does help me is going home. Just back to the U.S.. Anywhere in the U.S. feels a little bit like home. Seeing family and being like “Oh yeah, this is familiar.” It’s so nice to just have a dinner and not be worried about finishing my dinner really quickly, so I can go do whatever I have to do before I have to go to bed, or race tomorrow. It’s just like, “I don’t care how long this dinner takes. I’m going to take my time eating it, and we’re going to watch whatever, and I’m excited for Game of Thrones to come out.”
These different routines, I feel like they keep me grounded. Because then it doesn’t feel like, maybe, what most people see. They see the records. They see all of the stuff that seems like it was impossible, and then somehow I’m beating it this year. And I’m over here like, “Is this even real? I don’t know! I’m just skiing every day!”
What else is there that most people don’t see? Give me an idea of your average day.
There are a couple of different styles of an average day. One would be a normal training day on snow. Wake up around somewhere between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.. Breakfast almost immediately. When I’m home, and I’m able to cook, I have two eggs and two pieces of toast every single day. Sometimes I have an avocado, sometimes not. Maybe scrambled, maybe fried, I don’t know—it’s always surprising and exciting! [For the record, and because I know tone is tough to translate in a transcript, Shiffrin is laughing. She does not really think fried eggs are exciting.]
But when I’m on the road, not every hotel offers eggs in the morning. Sometimes it’s buffet-style, often it’s powdered eggs, or you run into eggs that are not cooked at all and really gross. I am a firm believer that breakfast is the most important meal of the day...
I can tell.
So then normally I’ll do some kind of a warmup. We’re on the hill by 7 a.m. and train until basically when the snow stops being good. A normal training day will be somewhere between three to five, even six hours. It depends how long the turnaround takes. If it’s a long chairlift, each lap could be somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, but if it’s a short T-bar you can get eight runs done in two hours. And it depends on if I’m training only one event in the day, or if I’m doing double sessions—today I trained GS for a few hours, then did a couple runs of slalom.
Lunch normally is immediately after training. Then I’ll take a nap. Lately my naps have been longer—an hour and a half. When I tell people that, they’re like, “What!?” But you work out six hours a day and you’d sleep that long too. I hope. Otherwise, I wasn’t meant to be a living person.
After the nap I’ll go do my dryland session, either a strength workout, or core, or maybe going on the bike for a little while. Then physical therapy right after that. I rush back to my room, change, go to dinner. Sometimes there’s time to take a shower before dinner. I don’t think I smell that bad normally. I can sometimes get away with not taking a shower. [She pretends to sniff her shirt.]
And sometimes you have to talk to a reporter instead of taking a shower.
Don’t put it past me to take a shower on FaceTime, okay?! Juuust kidding.
So then video analysis. That can take anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes. Sometimes we have two-hour analysis sessions. And then I go back to my room and maybe watch a TV show or just go to bed. By that time I’m exhausted and just ready to sleep. I’m often not really staying awake much longer than 8:30 p.m.
No wonder. That’s a lot in a day. It’s a lot mentally, too. How are you feeling this season in terms of handling pressure and anxiety?
This year, ironically, I actually feel less pressure than I used to. And that makes it a lot easier to handle.
Pressure’s sort of an interesting thing. It’s what you make of it. Like, sitting here right now talking to you, I don’t feel any sort of external pressure. But there are some days when I wake up and I think “Ughhhh, there’s a lot I have to get done today with my training, and if I don’t do well today, then it’s going to affect the next day, and the next day, and the next race, and then I’m going to be nervous,” and all this.
But this season, I’ve been really taking everything step by step, day by day, a lot more than previous seasons. I’m not sure exactly why that is. But I think it has to do a little bit with—last year at the Olympics, the GS was a dream. And the slalom was—disappointing. And then the super combined was the cherry on top of the cake. [Despite being tipped to win gold in slalom and to medal, if not win, a couple of other events, including by yours truly, Shiffrin just missed the podium for slalom, but won gold in the GS and silver in the combined, an event which combines a slalom run and a downhill run.]
Tell me more about how that all went down.
I went into the Olympics thinking, “Yeah, I could win multiple medals, but I could also have nothing. So if I’m able to get anything, I’ll be grateful.” Because at those kinds of big events—where it’s one race and anything can happen, especially in South Korea with all of the wind and weather and everything else that was going on [The weather was a mess. The first two races on the alpine skiing program, including the women’s GS, were called off and rescheduled. It was part of the overall schedule shuffle that ultimately meant Shiffrin—like the other tech women—had to race GS one day, then follow it with slalom the next]—it was like, the stars had to really align in order for a medal to happen.
The two other girls who were first and second in the GS standings for the entire season, Viktoria Rebensburg and Tessa Worley, they had been on almost every other podium for most of the season. I don’t even know if they were top 10 in the GS. [For the record, Rebensburg finished fourth, Worley seventh. But that was still well below expectations.] So that’s why I feel like the Olympics is often a competition more for the underdogs, or not for the favorites—because at any given moment anything could go wrong. And you see one athlete who’s able to perform nine out of 10 races, but often times the Olympics is the one out of 10 races that’s just un-over—it’s not a word, but un-overcomeable. You just can’t do anything about it.
So when I won the GS gold, I was like “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” But then for sure the slalom was a bummer. Not only because of how the race went, but because of how people responded to it.
What everybody saw from the outside was that I was a multiple-medal threat and slalom was my best event. People who don’t necessarily understand skiing don’t necessarily understand that for me, winning a GS gold medal was almost more incredible than winning a slalom gold medal, because GS is something I’ve been working at tooth and nail since the last Olympics. And I think if I had to choose between one of those two medals, I probably would have chosen the GS medal. So it was interesting how it played out, because in those moments after the slalom race, I was feeling like I let a lot of people down. And also feeling like I couldn’t have managed it any better than I did.
And when you see the reactions and the comments and people saying simple things like—like it would be in a social media post about me and somebody would say why are you promoting this girl, she’s not helping the medal count. It’s like, wait a second.
This is the tricky thing about ski racing. A lot of people don’t make the connection but GS, slalom, super-G, downhill, they’re all in the same ski racing realm. One medal is not greater than another. And that was sort of the point that I was trying to get across, but I also understand that point of view—looking at it and saying “Well, slalom is the event she was supposed to medal in, because she was the defending Olympic champion.”
How did that make you feel?
I went through a phase of being angry at the world for not getting it, and not understanding. And for making me feel like somehow I failed—when, by any stretch, I felt like I succeeded on every possible level.
I realized some time after the Olympics that, having walked away with a gold medal and a silver medal, and now being a three-time Olympic medalist and a two-time gold medalist, I somehow had a sour taste in my mouth. And I was like, That makes no. Sense.
Then I thought about how the Olympics go for so many other athletes. And some athletes are able to turn a single bronze medal into the greatest thing that’s ever happened. And you’re like, what are you doing? You’re feeding this to the media, and building yourself up, and you’re milking it, and making it seem like this is the greatest thing ever—but everybody knows that you came here for gold, and you have the ability to win gold. [I’ll just note here that Lindsey Vonn walked away from Pyeongchang with a single bronze…]
Then I started thinking, it’s just how you spin it in your own mind. I was totally letting everybody else kind of dictate my thoughts on the whole thing. And the truth was, winning that GS gold medal will forever be one of the most amazing moments of my life. And it was just a huge symbol for everything that’s happened in the last four years.
So what you’ve learned from that is...
First of all, taking nothing for granted. Because in a way, I really took advantage of enjoying winning that GS gold as much as I could.
When you win a medal at the Olympics, they run you through the gauntlet. You’re awake and on the hill from 5 a.m., and from where we were it was a really long trek to get to the actual race venue. So I was literally out from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m., with almost nothing to eat. There’s like a physical limit to what you’re able to do and still perform the next day and I was so far beyond that.
But, I knew that was going to happen, because after the Sochi Olympics I experienced it. And I was just thinking you know what—I have a slalom race tomorrow. This is just how it’s gone down. It’s not ideal. And I’m going to enjoy this. I’m going to give myself to the interview, and put in some effort. You can either give stock answers or you can actually be there—emotionally, mentally, physically. You can show people that you want to be there. I did every single interview, and went through doping control, and we went last at the medal ceremony so we were at the plaza for an hour and a half and did our ceremony last and then drove back home. [We’ve written before about how the way medal ceremonies are scheduled is more than a little crazy]. I was like, Are you kidding me?! The writing’s on the wall here, let’s see how tomorrow goes.
This whole season, even at World Champs this year, was about knowing how many things can go awry—in any given day—and then you’re placing all of this emphasis on basically one event, one race. It was like, Man alive. If I win a medal, I’m going to be psyched. If I win two, over the moon. Three, I don’t even know. That’s not something I can comprehend! [She won two golds and a silver.]
And that ability to keep your expectations somewhat low?
I think it’s been a really defining factor for me this season. Pretty much since the Lake Louise super-G—the first super-G that I won in my career, and also this season. When I showed up for the race, I was like, I haven’t skied super-G, I haven’t trained a legitimate super-G, in two or three months, since Chile. But I was also thinking “Well, my training in Chile was really good and I remember what I was thinking about there.” And I went back and watched the video.
Tell me how that day went at Lake Louise.
The morning of the super-G race, I was the first one out there. I was out there like an hour before anybody else, on the hill, while it was still dark, with my coaches, on this kind of warm-up track, because we were able to load the lift before the public could. There wasn’t actually a legitimate warm-up slope there. It was just the public slope. But it was prepared well enough that I could get into my tuck and do some free skiing, like simulating a super-G course. My coaches could clear the hill to make sure it was safe the whole way down so I could get up to speed.
When you’re going that fast, if you’re not in your tuck—we call it “bullet position”—the wind is actually pushing you backwards because it’s so much force, so much headwind on you. It’s like sticking your head out of a car going down the highway—you’re just getting thrown backwards. So it’s a different sort of feeling than GS and slalom. So I was like okay, I just have to remember this feeling, because it’s just that much more difficult to get forward on your skis. But we got a few warm-up runs in, and we did the inspection of the course, and I felt like I had a good line.
And then I was just thinking—here goes nothing! It’s not that I didn’t feel prepared. I just felt like, by no means should I be winning this race. I don’t need to feel like I’m supposed to be winning this.
Do you think that lack of expectation helps you let loose a little bit?
I think it’s everything. That’s the point. If that Lake Louise super-G hadn’t gone the way it did—if I’d felt more pressured, if I had skied stiff, if I hadn’t executed the line—I think this whole season might have gone a little bit differently.
But after that race, I was like, that was such a fun race. That was the most fun I’ve had racing for such a long time. Since I was probably a J3. I don’t know what the age is—[it’s 13- and 14-year-olds. Fun fact: When Shiffrin was a J3, she finished third in the Eastern J3 Olympics. The discipline? Super-G.] But before racing in the World Cup.
I’ve said this season, I’ve had really low expectations but high standards. So I’ve tried to do my very best skiing and I’ve tried to execute the fastest line, or the line that I thought would be fastest. And just everything—everything worked out amazing. It doesn’t always go that way. But the lesson there was man, if I can find a way to keep my expectations really, really low, it’s more enjoyable to race and I ski better.
You might be trying to keep your expectations low, but what does that mean for goal-setting?
I definitely set goals. It’s just that my goals are very much season title oriented—so, performance throughout the entire season. So these upcoming races in Czech this weekend, I would essentially have the possibility to lock in the GS globe [given to the skier with the most points in that discipline over the season]. I’ve already locked in the slalom globe, which was one of my big goals. The overall globe is basically locked in now.
So one of my biggest goals this season, and the one that’s riding on these final two races, is the GS globe. I’m 80-something points ahead in the giant slalom standings, and this weekend, if I am able to finish ahead of Tessa Worley, then essentially I will have locked in that globe. But Tessa is a really good GS skier. And that’s not an easy task by any means. So it’s sort of like I have one final goal for this season. But I’m also very aware that while 80 points is a very big lead to have going into the two final races, it’s also surprisingly easy to lose that lead when you lose sight of the focus or the things that get you there.
On any given day, people expect me to win. And for whatever reason, I’ve been able to hear that, see it, appreciate it, and forget about it. It’s amazing that I’m in a position where people expect me to win. But, I have to do the job. I have to do the skiing. So now I’m going to go focus on the ski, and see what happens. And that is how it has been for, a majority of the season, most races.
When people talk about the records and the number of victories and all of that, I hear it and it’s—this weekend I’ll be back racing in the place where I had my first World Cup race. And if you asked me eight years ago, when I was racing my very first World Cup race here, if I came back here, would I expect to have 50-something, I don’t know [it’s 57], World Cup wins and how many globes, I would be like, Are you kidding me?
But when I was 15 years old racing my first World Cup race, believe me, my ambitions were high! I mean, I would never have said it to anybody, but I was like, I want to have Olympics medals and I want to have World Championships medals and I want to be the best in the world, in every event, and winning globes, and all of this! So I would have hoped that I could achieve something, but I would never have imagined it to be—this.
And now? Are you hoping to beat Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 career victories, or are you really just trying not to think about it?
I’d say both, if that’s even possible. I really am trying not to think about it. But at a certain point when people keep talking about it, for sure, it’s not possible not to think about it.
This sport can be grueling and it’s a lot of travel, it’s a lot of time spent away from home, away from your loved ones. There are a lot of things that are just really, really not glamorous.
But the reason I keep doing it—and the reason I love it—is because of the feeling I get when I make a really good turn, and I feel the acceleration out of it, and I want to do it again. And again.
So it’s not the feeling of actually winning that ends up making a difference. It’s the feeling of knowing that my skiing is good enough to be the best in the world. And winning—the green light, having the fastest time—that basically symbolizes being the best in the world. But the doing the skiing part is the most amazing thing.
When I think about the records I’m like Wow, what if I was able to break this all-time victory record, what would that feel like? But I imagine it’s not going to feel all that different than the last race when I won 50-something races. Or, like, breaking the slalom record. It’s going to be like, okay, one moment ago that was a record, and now it’s mine. And that’s—that’s it.
You can either really, really sensationalize it, or you can call it what it is. And rather than sensationalize the number, you can sensationalize everything that has gone on to achieve it.
I’m also very aware of the fact that this season has gone amazing. It’s the best season I’ve ever had, and basically borderline the best season anybody’s ever had in their career in ski racing. And I don’t expect it to always be like this, or next season to be like this.
But that’s also part of the magic—I almost keep expecting it to stop. Like I’m going to wake up from this incredible dream and it’s just not going to keep going like this.
So that kind of thought is sort of what drives me to keep working hard. It’s not like, Oh, there are still so many things I want to achieve. It’s just, I just want to keep going and keep improving and keep skiing fast for as long as I can.
For as long as I have this passion, the motivation is pretty easy to find.
One last question for you: your mom, Eileen. She’s your mom, your travel buddy, your housemate, your coach. Lots of people seem to be curious about how that all works out, now that you’re 23.
I think the biggest misconception is that once an athlete becomes an adult, there’s no space for the parents anymore. There’s actually a ton of athletes whose parents are very, very involved in their sport and in their careers. I think you see it a lot more in, for instance tennis, where it’s almost like a full-on family ordeal.
It can be tough because everybody else has a job title. Coach. Serviceman. Physiotherapist. Strength and conditioning coach. They all have a job description, they all have a contract, they get paid. My mom, she doesn’t have an actual job title. “Mom” doesn’t cover it. Because she is my coach. She comes on the hill every day. She helps with setting and pulling the course, and slipping the course, making sure the conditions stay good. And when she comes off the hill, she watches a video with me and with my other coaches as well, while we’re constantly discussing skiing.
But she also is my mom. I vent to her. I tell her things I wouldn’t tell anybody else. I ask her to do things for me that I would never ask anybody else to do. And she protects me.
The fact is, nobody can do this alone. In any sport. Any champion you see, and in ski racing any champion you see now or have seen ever—none of them have been able to do it alone, or within some normal mainstream idea of them being within a team and just kind of figuring it out on their own. They all have somebody. Whether a husband, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a sister, a brother, somebody. You’re actually seeing it a lot more now with the top athletes. They all have their person around them that helps them feel sort of protected, so then they can do the job. That’s a little bit what my mom is for me.
But also, first and foremost, she’s really my best friend. And that’s maybe the most difficult thing for people to understand. It’s not like my mom and I don’t argue. But she really is one of my very best friends. And it was like that for her with her mom. Our family, we’ve just always been really close. If I’m doing something cool, if she’s not there, then she’s the first person I want to text. Or if I see something adorable, like a baby making a really funny face, I’m like, Oh my God, my mom would love that. Or if I find a new TV show I’m like, Oh I want to share this with my mom.
Or when I was trying to get through high school while also racing World Cup, I was doing a lot of summer school studying, and she was my study partner. She literally went through high school again just so I had somebody to study with. That’s the kind of stuff she does for me.
Do you feel you have enough independence?
People say, you know, Don’t you think that it’s unhealthy to be around your daughter so much? And both she and I, but really I, think Uhhh, I’m sorry. Unhealthy? To be around family?
No. Never. You have family that loves you, and you’re lucky enough to have two parents that love you and that are able to support you and the situation that we have? Unhealthy is the last word I would use to describe that.
It’s not always easy. Mainly because when you have somebody who’s your mom, also working as your coach, the hardest thing is just to separate the mother/daughter, coach/athlete relationship. Sometimes those two things get scrambled, and then that’s when we have arguments. Because I’m like, “You’re coaching me with my skiing and that means you don’t love me!” [Probably important to note here that Shiffrin’s laughing while she says this.]
But otherwise she’s honestly one of the first people to tell me, “You should go make some friends!” She was the one who pushed me into trying to get in touch with my boyfriend, who is on the national ski team from France [that’s Mathieu Faivre, if you’re curious]. She just wanted me to get out. I’m the one who’s like “Mom, let’s watch Friends!” She’s like “No, go meet somebody!” So as far as the independence thing goes, I’d say sometimes I probably have too much independence. It’s not the same kind of independence as maybe what your normal girl my age experiences. But that’s kind of the life.
Well, it seems to be working for you.
Yeah. [She laughs.] It’s going all right.