GRAHAM BELL TAKES A LOOK AT MIKAELA SHIFFRIN’S PHENOMENAL CAREER SO FAR AND WHAT THE FUTURE MAY HOLD FOR THE ALREADY LEGENDARY AMERICAN SKIER.
At just 24 years old Mikaela Shiffrin looks set on becoming the best Alpine ski racer of all time.
Last season the she set a record with 17 World Cup victories in one winter, as well as boosting her World Championship gold medal haul to five, with victories in the Äre 2019 Super-G and Slalom. So far this season the Shiffrin has won World Cup races in Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super-G and Downhill and is leading the race to clinch her forth overall World Cup title.
But it has not been plain sailing for the Vail-born star. In the opening race of the season she was pipped by 0.06 seconds by 17-year-old New Zealander Alice Robinson; she has been beaten twice by Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova in her favourite discipline of Slalom, and in the Sestriere Giant Slalom Shiffrin placed third, just 0.01 seconds behind Vlhova and Italy’s Federica Brignone, who tied in first. After such an incredible season in 2019, Shiffrin is struggling to manage expectations and not compare this season to the last.
Her nadir came before Christmas in Courchevel, where Shiffrin placed 17th in the Giant Slalom. She described the result as ‘appalling’ and the lowest point of her career to date, even questioning whether she was past her best. She took time off after Courchevel and her mother Eileen, who had stepped away from a lead coaching role, flew back to the Alps to support Mikaela. Shiffrin thrives on the competition, and I suspect is sometimes more satisfied by a closely fought victory than races where she is not pushed. However, her victory in the Lienz GS, 11 days after Courchevel, showed just how much fire still exists inside her – she won that race by an impressive 1.36 seconds.
Shiffrin will overtake Marcel Hirscher’s total of 67 World Cup wins this season, and with an average win rate at 13 victories per seasons in the last three years, she is on track to overtake Lindsey Vonn at 82 and Ingemar Stenmark at 86 by the end of the 2021 season.
What is remarkable is her ability to win in any discipline; in Bansko mid-January, Shiffrin turned her attention to speed and notched up a win in Downhill and Super-G. Her skiing on the tough Marc Girardelli piste was some of the best downhill I have seen for a while on the women’s tour – Shiffrin skied aggressively, powering the pressure onto her skis at the top of the turns.
While we have seen great slalom skiers over the years, like Girardelli and Bode Miller, who have moved over to Downhill and dominated, they lost their Slalom edge in the process. For a skier to win across all disciplines, at the same time, is highly unusual; on the Men’s tour it has not been done since Lasse Kjus won a full-house of five medals at the Vail 1999 World Championships, and on the Women’s tour in 2013 when Tina Maze racked up a record number of 2414 World Cup points. Maze started every race and won 11 times in five disciplines, but has said afterwards the effort burned her out, and she retired a couple of seasons later. Maze has publicly warned Shiffrin not to make the same mistake, advice the American has heeded.
Shiffrin says that she is not motivated by records or accolades, or being recognised as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). It seems like her main drive right now is to keep her enjoyment of ski racing. She clearly loves racing Downhill and Super-G, judging by her performances in Bansko, but the speed events come with increased risk, and can slow down your movements in the technical events. With that in mind, she decided to miss the speed weekend in Rosa Khutor, Russia, in order to rest up for the final races of the season. Shiffrin recently described it on social media: “People be like… ‘it’s a slump’… ‘it’s not a slump’… ‘she’s back’… ‘or, wait’… My career and this life is a marathon not a sprint.”
Shiffrin is lucky to have been badly injured only once since she made her World Cup debut at 16 years old. In December 2015 she fell warming up in Åre, Sweden, and suffered a partial tear to her medial collateral ligament in her right knee. If she can stay injury-free, and maintain her motivation to compete, then she will undoubtably go on to become the greatest ever skier of all time, maybe even the greatest female athlete of all time.
AFTER WRITING THIS PIECE, THE SAD NEWS WAS ANNOUNCED THAT MIKAELA’S FATHER JEFF HAD DIED FOLLOWING AN ACCIDENT AT HIS HOME IN COLORADO. AS MIKAELA WAS TAKING A BREAK FROM THE WORLD CUP TOUR, SHE AND HER FAMILY WERE WITH HIM WHEN HE DIED.
GRAHAM BELL IS A FIVE-TIME OLYMPIC SKIER AND FORMER JUNIOR WORLD CHAMP, BUT IS MOST PROUD OF HIS 12TH PLACE IN THE NOTORIOUS HAHNENKAMM RACE.