It’d be almost exhausting if it weren’t so preposterous: Mikaela Shiffrin has done it again. With the close of the World Ski Championships in Åre, Sweden, she’s broken another record. Hit another personal best. She’s still just 23 years old. And she’s done it with an approach to her craft, and her competitions, that just isn’t anything like what we’re used to from top skiers—so much so it can rub other racers the wrong way. But there is no arguing with results.
On Saturday, the Vail native grabbed gold in the slalom, making her the first athlete in history to be named world champion in any single discipline four times in a row. (Her six-year reign started when she was 17 years old, if you’re curious). She also won the super-G, an event she only started racing with any frequency a couple of seasons ago—and even then, only doing about half of the races on the calendar. And she took bronze in the giant slalom.
It’s an extraordinary highlight in what’s been yet another extraordinary season. When she won her first super-G race in December 2018 at Lake Louise, Shiffrin became the first athlete, male or female, ever to win all six disciplines on the World Cup tour. (She’s followed it up by winning every super-G she’s started in since: St. Moritz in December, Cortina in January and here at the championships). She bagged her 50th World Cup victory at the slalom in Courchevel the same month—that’s in just eight seasons competing. (For comparison, it took Lindsey Vonn, who holds the women’s record for the most lifetime World Cup victories, 11 seasons to get to 50). And Shiffrin closed December by winning her 36th slalom in Semmering, Austria, beating Austrian Marlies Schild’s record to become history’s winningest woman in slalom—and the first skier on the circuit, male or female, to win 15 races in one calendar year.
That was all before the New Year. On the World Cup circuit thus far in 2019, she’s nabbed five more victories and two runner-up positions... in seven races total. Put another way: Of the 20 World Cup races in total held ahead of the championships, she’s failed to reach the podium just four times.
The irony—and, perhaps, the hidden reason—behind all of those records? If you believe Shiffrin, and I do, records aren’t her main motivation. If anything, she finds them distracting, anxiety-inducing, even counterproductive. She’d rather, in fact, for them not to be on her radar at all.
When she was asked at Courchevel how important that 50-victory win was to her, Shiffrin hesitated. “Well—it’s not really my motivation to break records,” she said. “My big motivation is to ski really well. Like today, everyone was asking about 50. And I was really trying to focus just on skiing and practicing my turns, making the best turns that I could.” After edging out her rival by only .04 of a second in the first run, she knew she had to bring everything she had to the second run, and to do that, she had to push all of the records out of her mind: “I was trying to fight hard in the second run and forget about numbers,” she said. “There’s a list of statistics and records that happened today and I don’t even know what they are.”
This isn’t humble-bragging. I’m pretty sure Shiffrin is overwhelmed by the number of records she’s smashing. You can see it in the look of near-shock on her face each time she comes through the finish line to see she’s gotten the green light: no matter how good she is, no matter how much better she gets, she’s not taking any of these wins for granted.
But I’m also pretty sure a big part of her wishes she weren’t being reminded of those records so often. Asked, again, about yet more records she smashed in Semmering, she gave the same response. “I mean, it’s a little bit distracting,” she said with a slightly nervous chuckle—aware, perhaps, that no matter how many times she says it, this still isn’t the response people expect, or even believe. “Because, yeah, I’m not chasing these records. And sometimes it gets in my head, like ‘I should be thinking about the records’.
“But the thing that helps me ski fast is when I focus on my skiing. And today I was just trying to focus on making good solid turns. Yeah, it was a really special day, I know it was a big day for a lot of records. But when I was in the starting gate it was like, ‘I better make some good turns.’”
There’s good reason why Shiffrin tries not to focus on those records. Putting that extra awareness front and center adds expectations. Shiffrin’s already no stranger to pressure. And although she’s handled it with precocious aplomb (can we underscore again that she started dealing with all of this before she was even an adult?), it doesn’t, understandably, seem to be her favorite thing.
Just a few months after that astounding Olympic gold at Sochi five years ago, she told me she used visualization techniques to fight anxiety on the hill. “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. 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.”
Maybe letting all that pressure in, really feeling it, fires up some athletes. Shiffrin doesn’t seem to be one of them. The slalom in Killington in 2016 was a case in point: after landing a disappointing fifth, she wound up consulting a sport psychologist. As I’ve written before, in interviews, she keeps the focus on her abilities, her process, how each run feels. And she’s happiest not just when she wins, but when she wins by skiing in a way that she knows is practically perfect.
Her inaugural super-G at Lake Louise was a demonstration of all of this: how she finds it easiest to bring her best when it’s low-pressure, how she bubbles over with excitement when she not only wins but skis the way she wants.
“I didn’t have really any expectations. If anything, I expected that it wouldn’t be a great race because I haven’t done really any super-G since September,” Shiffrin said. “Not having expectations, I didn’t feel the pressure of, like, ‘Oh, I have to win this race.’ It [was] just, like, I hope I can ski well, I guess! So I tried to nail the line and let it go and it was amazing. I’ve never felt a super-G run like that.”
The championships, of course, were much different. There were expectations. Lots of them. And they seemed, at least at one point, to rub Shiffrin the wrong way.
Requiring one run of slalom and one run of downhill, the combined event seemed suited to Shiffrin, who is fast becoming an all-around star. But she sat it out. It was a decision she struggled with. “I have been going back and forth on this decision so much, it feels like a game of ping pong in my head,” she wrote on Instagram. But the reasons were classic Shiffrin. She was focusing on winning three events instead of stretching herself to four (or, if she’d done the team event or downhill, five or six). She was prioritizing her energy over a record, her health over numbers.
“The most difficult thing” of the season, she went on, “has been balancing my desire to race as much as possible with managing my energy levels both physically and mentally and not taking anything for granted.”
To other athletes, well aware (and perhaps a little envious) that Shiffrin could have a shot at more medals and was choosing not to go for it, this did not compute.
“She could have won everything,” Lindsey Vonn told reporters. “I’m a racer and I want to race in every single race that I possibly can. I respect her decision. It’s obviously her decision. But she has the potential and 100 percent the capability of getting a medal in all five disciplines. So I don’t personally understand it.”
For all of the attempts to describe Shiffrin as “taking the torch” from Vonn, for all the probability that Shiffrin will indeed become the woman to smash Vonn’s own records, the two racers couldn’t be more different. It’s worth noting that when Vonn was closer to Shiffrin’s age, she too seemed a little less focused on records: “My goal is always to just win the next race,” she told reporters at 27.
Yet even then, Vonn was still talking about victories. When Shiffrin talks about her approach, she talks about making good turns.
It goes without saying that every athlete at this level wants to win, badly. But Shiffrin may have tapped her full potential by trying to keep her focus on the process, not the outcome.
And for her, a big part of being able to make those good turns is having the energy to do so. That has meant being strategic—and, for all of her multi-discipline racing, relatively focused—on which events she enters.
Just compare the two athletes. In her best season, 2011–12, Vonn, the most successful female racer of all time, took 12 victories in 37 races. That’s a win rate of just under a third. Shiffrin’s victory rate thus far this year is 65 percent. Vonn is famously likely to go big or go home—meaning her record is scattered with DNFs from crashing, while Shiffrin, no matter how aggressive she can be, hardly ever pushes so far to the edge of her limits. Another potential difference? Vonn, who got her start as a slalom skier before becoming a speed queen, was spreading herself across more disciplines. Even with her successful entries into super-G and downhill, so far this season Shiffrin has done just five speed events on the World Cup tour, compared to 15 in GS and slalom. By the same point of the year in the 2011–12 season, Vonn had done 20 World Cup races too, but 10 of them were technical events. Vonn also had done nine downhill training runs, exactly like World Cup downhill races in everything but prestige (including the toll on one’s energy), in addition.
As the racers both know all too well, the more disciplines you race, the tougher everything becomes. The disciplines all require different skill sets, mentalities and approaches. And more concretely, every hour you spend running slalom gates is a day you’re not practicing downhill—and vice versa. This is why Slovenian all-rounder Tina Maze was so extraordinary. It’s also why, at times, she was so tired, tired enough to tell a young Shiffrin never to compete in every event.
So it’s little wonder that Vonn’s comments on whether Shiffrin should have done more events seemed to ruffle Shiffrin, who has good reason to think her personal approach isn’t up for criticism ... and perhaps certainly not from an athlete like Vonn, who, her stunning success aside, was just forced into retirement from pushing, and injuring, her body too much over the years.
“As the one who has been trying to race in every discipline this season, and who has won in five disciplines this season alone, I can tell you that not a single one of those wins was ‘easy,’” Shiffrin shot back. “There is no such thing as an easy win. From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve. What I see is an enormous mixture of work, training, joy, heartache, motivation, laughs, stress, sleepless nights, triumph, pain, doubt, certainty, more doubt, more work, more training, surprises, delayed flights, canceled flights, lost luggage, long drives through the night, expense, more work, adventure, and some races mixed in there.”
She went on: “At 23, I’m still understanding my full potential as well as my limitations. But I have definitely learned not to let hubris dictate my expectations and goals. My goal has never been to break records for most WC wins, points or most medals at Word Champs. My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start, and to have the kind of longevity in my career that will allow me to look back when all is said and done and say that—for a vast majority of the duration of my career—I was able to compete and fight for that top step rather than being sidelined by getting burnt out or injured from pushing beyond my capacity.”
If you thought that last bit, in particular, seemed like a shot at Vonn, you wouldn’t be the only one. But it also describes Shiffrin’s approach to a T—one her team may have developed in part by looking at and learning from the experiences of other, older racers, but mostly, I think, because this style just suits her.
Maybe it was sitting out the combined, maybe it was something else. But Shiffrin’s approach obviously left her with some gas in the tank. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the second run of Saturday’s slalom:
It was a long, exhausting course: almost two minutes, ages for something that aerobically tiring. (The embed is just 50 seconds of highlights). Shiffrin had been four-hundredths of a second behind Anna Swenn-Larsson in the first run. But attacking from the back (if second position can be considered the back) tends to fire her up, and today was no different.
Just stop the video at 0:19, where Shiffrin is 1:28.7 into her overall time (the two runs added together). The runner up, Swenn-Larsson is at the same red gate at 0:13 in this video:
Swenn-Larsson’s run was dazzling. She edged out even Petra Vlhova, another extremely powerful contender, by a tenth of a second. But freeze-frame both Swenn Larsson and Shiffrin them and you can see Shiffrin’s angles are just that much more extreme. Her hip is about a foot closer to the ground, so low that her left hand is actually touching the snow; her legs are so extended that, as she arcs her turn left, her right knee is almost against her left ski. Swenn Larsson is standing up much more. This show’s Shiffrin’s strength; it takes an insane amount of muscular power and dynamism to hold positions like that at such high speeds. But those angles also let her take a more aggressive line through the course and to carve more, putting her skis on more of an edge.
Turn after turn, that difference adds up. Even here, Shiffrin was 1:28.7 in. Swenn-Larsson was at 1:29—three tenths of a second behind at the same point. And there was still another half of this course to go.
That isn’t to say Shiffrin wasn’t exhausted by the end, as was Swenn-Larsson. Both women lay on the ground in the finish area, panting. Shiffrin hadn’t even caught her breath by the time she was interviewed by reporters after her win (though emotion may have played a role, too).
“Today was something else,” she said. “It’s been a lot going on this world championships since the super-G win and I certainly had a lot of doubt today but in the most important moments it was okay and… my team was spectacular this whole time just to get me to toughen up and do the job and I’m just really, really happy.”
As she should be. She made some tough choices to get this win, not to mention her two other medals. It must be equally tough to keep focusing on the process, to keep her mind on simply making good turns, despite the temptation to become arrogant or complacent or to start to expect victory—or, equally dangerously, to become over-anxious in the face of pressure. But she’s doing it. And, obviously, it’s paid off.
“It is clear to me that many believe I am approaching my career in a way that nobody has before, and people don’t really understand it. But you know what?! That is completely fine by me, because I am ME, and no one else,” she wrote in her IG post last week.
No kidding. This is a woman who, at 23, has figured out what works for her—and is growing increasingly confident about saying it.