Shiffrin continues to surprise
World Cup leader stunned to be on the precipice of a first overall title.
Mikaela Shiffrin has surprised people since her World Cup debut on the slopes at the tender age of 15.
From those precocious early runs, to the first podium at 16, and her maiden World Cup victory 12 months later, she has continued the upward curve. Now on the precipice of the first of what could well be many overall titles, she is surprising even herself.
Two dominant victories in the slalom and giant slalom at Squaw Valley over the weekend saw her pick up a fourth slalom title in five seasons and join Lindsey Vonn in winning ten or more races in a single calendar.
Shiffrin, who celebrated her 22nd birthday on Monday, has one hand on the end-of-season crystal globe and is in line to become the youngest overall champion since Janica Kostelic in 2003.
She said: “I still have the lead which has sort of surprised me. I thought maybe I could be competitive for it [the overall World Cup title] this season but I’m much more confident about it now.”
The American is the first to admit that the season-ending injury to Lara Gut, for much of the season her closest rival, has aided her cause, admitting, “I was expecting that she would take over the lead, and she didn’t.”
Shiffrin now stands comfortably in the lead with 1523 points with just four of the season’s 37 races remaining in Aspen. Her closest challenge, Ilka Stuhec, is back on a tally of 1,145.
That crowning glory looks likely to materialize in Aspen in a season where she makes no secret of the fact that she has been the dominant force on the slopes.
“I always figured that at the World Cup all the top athletes train every day, on snow a lot and getting the miles in,” she said. “So when I made it to World Cup, I felt I had to ski even more as some girls have 10 years experience over me and I had to make up for that lost time somehow.
“So I started skiing double sessions, twice as much as my teammates, more days, more time in each session and I’m starting to realize that people don’t actually do that.”
Those in her entourage from those early days on the slopes to those with her in Aspen today speak of her phenomenal work ethic.
Shiffrin herself jokes that it is even to the detriment of her back-up team: “Usually the coaches or others will say we have to take a break now as I have to be able to prepare the skis or coaches need to go home and see their families but I’m like ‘no, we keep going’.”
But that relentless drive and ambition have turned her from a slalom specialist – she is the Olympic champion and boasts a hat-trick of world titles in the event – into an all-rounder.
This season has resulted in victories in the slalom, giant slalom and combined, as well as some strong downhill results.
And the secret of her success is simple: “I have the energy and strength to train when no one else is and that mileage you can’t really substitute anything for that and that’s where the dominance comes from. It’s hard to keep up with it. It takes a lot of training.”
Ominously for her rivals looking to next season and beyond, she still believes she is getting better and her confidence is growing with every race weekend.
But trying to balance her commitments from the technical events – her forte – to the speed ones, she insists, is not as easy as she has made it look.
“Hopefully I can win races consistently in the future,” she said. “Right now, I’m having to figure out how to balance it all because I’m still new to the World Cup and young.
“I’m still trying to improve my skiing a lot, so it’s difficult to balance. There’s not enough time in the day to get it all done but this year I felt like we did a good job of balancing it.”
For now, the immediate goal is on the overall title but she looks beyond to Pyeongchang and the Winter Games next year where she will look to defend her slalom gold and pick up medals elsewhere.
She travelled to Korea to practise rather than compete at the World Cup event and has already got pangs of excitement about next year.
“The venues in Korea are amazing,” she said. “I’m not surprised but my hopes were confirmed and that track looks really really fun. It’s perfect for Olympics, it showcases our sport well and I’m excited to get there.”