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Mikaela Shiffrin's Swift, if Unplanned, Ascent to World Champion


 

 

Sprinting from her small trophy-filled bedroom, Mikaela Shiffrin, the youngest American skier to be a World Cup champion, dashed around the kitchen looking for a headset to attach to her laptop.

In two minutes, a horde of European journalists would be linked via Skype to the Shiffrins’ home here in the mountains, eager for insight from Mikaela, an 18-year-old princess of precision and a gold medal favorite in next month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

It was just past 8 on a mid-September morning and she was sleepy after a rare late-night shopping spree with her mother, Eileen, two hours away in Denver. Mikaela hurriedly combed her hair at a kitchen table as she made the Skype connection while Eileen rushed to wash dishes in the sink so the background would not look messy.

Mikaela, who graduated from high school a month earlier, was thoughtful and forthcoming with the reporters, but as soon as she finished and the laptop was shut, mother and daughter burst out laughing.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, the defending World Cup slalom champion, spends time with her mother at their house in Eagle-Vail, Colo. Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

“Because she skis so efficiently, everyone perceives Mikaela as this perfectly prepped, organized little machine,” Eileen said. “And here I am running around in the background as the world watches me clean my countertop and stove. If they only knew that we don’t know what we’re doing half the time.

“People think we’ve had this master plan to produce a world champion. We have no plan.”

Nevertheless, Shiffrin, who is often called the next Lindsey Vonn, will be a featured personality at the Sochi Games, especially on American television now that the injured Vonn has withdrawn. With a gleaming smile, long blond hair and no pretension, Shiffrin is a star in waiting.

The only hard part may be waiting until the last few days of the Games for her events, giant slalom and slalom.

But one of the final, lasting Alpine images of Sochi may be Shiffrin’s Olympic debut. She could become the face of a new generation of ski racing champions, a gold medalist raised in Colorado and New Hampshire who is already known throughout Europe by one name: Mikaela.

As Roland Pfeifer, her Austrian-born coach, said: “Mikaela is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. One day, she could beat everyone at everything.”

Dominant in Slalom

Shiffrin has already done a good job beating everyone in slalom, her best event.

Racing in Europe since she was 15, she not only won last year’s world slalom championship before 30,000 screaming Austrian fans — most of whom were rooting for the second-place Austrian finisher — but also awed the ski community with her dominance in the World Cup slalom standings. In the last year, she has won six World Cup slalom races and finished second or third in two other races.

In the last three months, she has stunned the World Cup circuit anew in giant slalom. With a second-place and a third-place finish in World Cup races, and two other top-10 finishes, she has demonstrated that she will also be a contender for Olympic gold in giant slalom.

But the Shiffrin phenomenon is about more than winning races. It is about her rapid improvement. Although some of her competitors have 300 more World Cup starts, Shiffrin began winning by implausibly large margins last season.

To put her accomplishments in perspective, consider that Shiffrin was a world champion at 17; Vonn was 24 when she won her first world championship gold medal. In a sport defined by the speed one can go downhill, Shiffrin’s ascent in women’s skiing has almost defied gravity.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, center, celebrates her victory in the World Cup women's slalom on January 5 in Bormio, Italy. Maria Pietilae-Holmner of Sweden, left, finished second, and Nastasia Noens of France, right, was third.

Olivier Morin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A wunderkind since she was 11, she is neither physically imposing (5 feet 7 inches, 145 pounds) nor especially aggressive nor intimidating (an aw-shucks smile seems to be her natural expression). On skis, she does not appear to be going that fast. Her upper body is virtually motionless, her eyes are quiet and she does not create particularly dynamic angles on the snow with her skis.

The only thing that truly stands out about a Shiffrin race is her finish time.

“It’s about the purity and serenity of her form,” said her teammate Ted Ligety, a four-time world champion. “At top speed on an icy, steep racecourse, the hardest thing in the world is making it look effortless. Mikaela does that.”

That is why they call her the Mozart of ski racing. But that only adds to the mystery. Because how does one nurture a prodigy?

“The question everyone asks me is: How did she get so good so soon?” Eileen said as Mikaela made scrambled eggs after the Skype interview. “There is no exact answer. People tell me I should write a book. I laugh, because you know what I would put in the book? How Mikaela got good because she had to shovel cow manure for weeks with me when we were replacing our lawn one summer.

“It was 90 degrees and she was 10 years old and she worked so hard without complaining. So she’s a good ski racer because she did all kinds of different developmental things — like learning a good work ethic — but none of them were part of a plan to make a world champion.”

Process and Family

To the Shiffrins — including her father, Jeff, and her older brother, Taylor, a college ski racer — Mikaela’s journey to the top of the mountain is what they call a succession of not mere coincidences.

The family moved regularly for Jeff’s job as an anesthesiologist, shuttling between Vail Valley in Colorado and northern New England more than once. The relocations were fitful and sometimes distressing, with the children occasionally begging to leave one place or the other. But looking back, the Shiffrins insist that every step was essential to Mikaela’s development, even when mother and daughter helped to rebuild the lawn in front of their house in New Hampshire.

“I really developed some shoulder definition from that,” Mikaela said with a laugh.

Not surprisingly, any predetermined strategy was remarkably elemental and always focused on process, not results. Jeff and Eileen, former college-level racers, believed in basic tenets, like keeping a light race schedule for their children as they loaded up on practice days filled with deliberate, skills-based drills and exercises.

And, they said, it was imperative to keep family close by.

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Shiffrin family photos show Mikaela at age 8, racing with the Ford Sayre Ski Council in New Hampshire. Top left is Mikaela with her father, Jeff, and older brother, Taylor. Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

Yet, these were controversial theories in the ski racing community — both when Mikaela was starting out and when she advanced to the World Cup.

Youth coaches were livid when Mikaela, faster than skiers several years older, chose to stay close to home to practice with her family instead of chasing the prestige of distant championships. Several years later, Eileen said, the United States ski team was adamantly against her accompaniment of Mikaela on the World Cup circuit in Europe. Eileen went anyway, and the Shiffrins paid for it for three years.

“Our plan produced the first 17-year-old World Cup champion the U.S. has ever had,” Eileen said. “They should thank us for our $500,000 donation to the U.S. ski team.”

The message, the Shiffrins insist, is that their approach, which stressed skill development and shunned goal setting, and always involved the family, has been the secret. If there was a secret.

“If you look at it, what we always sought was normalcy,” Eileen said.

Jeff recalled: “These top-level coaches would tell me that Mikaela was just ripping up a racecourse. And I would say: ‘Yeah, I agree, but she’s just 9 years old.’ And they’d say, ‘What are your plans for her?’ And I’d answer: ‘Plans? Well, tomorrow she’s trying out for a part as the angel in the Christmas play.’

“We didn’t have plans. A million things could have happened.”

Moving East

A million things did happen. They just seem to have produced the best 18-year-old skier, male or female, in United States history. To hear the Shiffrins speak of the many twists and turns in Mikaela’s path, it began when they left the ski mecca of Vail, Colo., and moved to a New Hampshire town they had virtually never seen and a remote new house that Eileen and Mikaela had trouble finding after a cross-country drive.

“I hated it in the East at the start,” Mikaela said, sitting in a gym outside Vail after a workout in September. “My parents said the East and the West were totally different, so they wanted us to know both so we understood the diversity of places. But the differences were tough to adjust to. It rained a lot in New Hampshire, and when I skied the snow was icy and hard, and the mountains were small. The people, the schools, the clothes — everything was different.”

Jeff Shiffrin took a job at the medical center in central New Hampshire operated by Dartmouth College, his alma mater. Eileen, a former intensive care unit nurse, turned her focus to raising Mikaela and Taylor.

She said: “We had moved from a nice house in a Colorado resort town to a tiny house in the country, and while we had a lot of land, which was great, the New Hampshire house was in terrible shape. So we started working 14-hour days repainting the entire inside and outside of the house and fixing everything up.”