Ridgelines: Chasing a number
And then along came Mikaela Shiffrin
The summer of 1961 was a formative time for me as a young boy developing a life-long passion for sport. I would tune in the radio each day, listening through the crackly airwaves to hear about New York Yankees stars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris as they chased the seemingly unassailable record of 60 home runs held by the legendary Babe Ruth.
To a nine-year-old kid in Wisconsin, they were mythical characters in a statistical home run chase that captivated America through the summer. Maris broke the record with his 61st four-bagger on the very last day of the season, October 1, 1961.
We didn’t know the term “greatest of all time” quite yet in 1961. It was a few years still until Mohammed Ali would coin himself the greatest. Generally, athletes are not all that fond of the attention that goes with the chase for a record, as pundits pen myriad tales to build the excitement to a rousing crescendo. Some, like Maris, are uncomfortable. Others, like Ali, embrace it as their brand.
Such has been the case for the sport of ski racing over the past few years as two American athletes closed in on a 1989 record that many felt would never, ever be touched. A decade ago, Lindsey Vonn set her sights on the mythical mark of 86 World Cup wins held by Swede Ingemark Stenmark. She set a torrid pace. But with her body wracked by racing injuries, she fell just short at 82.
And then along came Mikaela Shiffrin. Even as Vonn was retiring in 2019, fans were doing the math as Shiffrin steadily knocked off victory after victory. In the three seasons from 2016-19, she won 40!
Åreskutan is a magical mountain rising out of the lakes and forests of central Sweden’s Jämtland. From the treeless ridgeline, you can see all the way to Norway. Low angle winter light refracts off the moisture in the air to create a mystical feeling. Stenmark won there five times in front of his countrymen. It was the site of Shiffrin’s first World Cup win in 2012. She would go on to win there eight times, including two World Championship titles. Vonn won six times in Åre.
By nature, a Shiffrin win comes with humility. Across 87 World Cup victories and 17 Olympic or World Championship medals, she has never been known for her finish line celebrations. After winning her first World Championship gold medal in 2013 at the tender racing age of 17, she knelt for two minutes, head bowed in reflection, in the finish. With win 87, she looked skyward and put her gloves to her face to quietly ponder how that moment came to be.
There is a magnitude of pressure that comes with a record chase that is incomprehensible to fans. It’s the hundreds – no, thousands – of hours on cold, dark training courses. It’s gut-wrenching strength testing at Park City’s Center of Excellence. It’s the mental game of reading what others think you’re feeling.
But the most important element of that chase is the mutual respect of the record holder and record chaser for each other.
It was a sunny spring-like day in Aspen when Stenmark won his 86th back in 1989. It was his retirement year and you could see in his eyes the magnitude of what he had accomplished. In a career that spanned from the early ‘70s until 1989, he had proven himself the greatest through dramatic changes in ski construction and a transition from bamboo gate poles to plastic to breakaways. With each change he had to evolve himself to ski differently and still win.
That accomplishment was not lost on Mikaela Shiffrin, a deeply knowledgeable student of the sport and the science that it takes to win.
She and Stenmark have not yet met. He watched the races from home, though they messaged back and forth over the weekend. But she sent a message to him via television to let him know her feelings:
“No matter what I do, it doesn’t ever compare to what you achieved. For me, the biggest dream is to be mentioned in the same sentence as you. It’s pretty special who you are, who you were as a ski racer and what you achieved as a human. That’s been the most inspiring thing.”
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