Mikaela Shiffrin: Perfection personified
Two weeks before the close of the Audi FIS Ski World Cup season in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin had a decision to make. Having just come back from a December knee injury, she had to decide whether or not to go to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for a super G and an alpine combined leading into the World Cup Finals.
She was coming off a top-10 combined finish in Andorra — her first World Cup in that discipline. And speed events were definitely in her plans. It was a challenging decision for the then 20-year-old Shiffrin (she turned 21 a week later).
She chose conservatively, as is often the case. And she chose wisely. Last week, on a course where a year from now she will battle for an unprecedented third straight World Championship, she won her fifth slalom in five races this season to close out a crazy but productive season. It was her 20th career World Cup win.
Every night, the coaches from competing nations look at the video, trying to find kinks in her armor or the secret to her success. When you watch her race, you think you see a mistake but then the margin grows ever larger.
"When I watch the video, it just seems like I’m able to be connected with my skis better and quicker," said Shiffrin. "The rhythm changes don’t get to me as much and that just all adds up.
"Two seconds — it seems like a lot but it’s not that much," she laughed. "So I could easily see them figuring that out and coming right back to beat me."
But so far they have not. In five World Cup slaloms this year, Mikaela Shiffrin has won each by an average of over two seconds.
Despite her streak of five slalom wins this season, she didn’t get the crystal globe. The knee injury kept her sidelined for two months, missing five slaloms and conceding the title she had won the last three seasons.
All told, Shiffrin has now won the last eight World Cup slaloms she’s started. Her last defeat came at the hands of Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter at Flachau, Austria, in January 2015. Although Shiffrin’s mark was punctuated with the five races she missed, it puts her in the league with slalom greats Janica Kostelic and Vreni Schneider, who hold the World Cup record with eight consecutive slalom wins.
Since her first World Cup victory in December 2012 in Are, Sweden, Shiffrin has endeared herself to fans, fellow competitors and news media. She’s constantly in learning mode, gracious in victory and humble to the core. She frustrates photographers in the finish with her lack of celebratory emotion. But in her mind, she’s still processing and learning, analyzing her run and preparing for the next. She’s a true student of the sport — much like her own childhood idol, Marlies Schild of Austria, who had her own five-race win streak in slalom just four years ago.
Through that constant learning process, she’s learned what it takes to win a World Cup ski race. She knows how to focus and get in her zone. Most of all, she’s learned how to take the mental knowledge she has amassed and transfer it to her skis.
After smiling on the victory podium for her race win in St. Moritz, she climbed down and stepped aside. Now it was Frida Hansdotter’s turn to climb the podium to accept the crystal globe for slalom — the first for Sweden since Anja Paerson in 2004.
Shiffrin smiled and cheered for Hansdotter, who won over Slovakia’s Veronika Velez Zuzulova.
"I was a little bummed," said Shiffrin, who had stood on that spot the last three seasons. "But at the same time I’m happy for her because I know the feeling of holding that in your hand."
Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he’s not traveling the world with the team.
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Park City dominated East in a sweep on Tuesday night to improve to 3-3 on the season and 3-0 in region play.