Yet doubts, sometimes biting, seem to fuel Shiffrin.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘Yeah, sure, you’re good at slalom, but wait till you get to the real events like downhill or super-G,’” she said, her eyes narrowing. “I don’t like hearing that.”
And so, with the sting of such comments, the desire to build on her early track record of success and a lifelong resolve to be the pre-eminent racer of her generation, Shiffrin on that spring morning climbed the frosty hillside at Mammoth Mountain in Northern California, one of the few places in North America that still had ample snow in May. Most of the ski racing world was on hiatus, but not Shiffrin, who was taking the first step in a daring quest so outlandish it sometimes frightens her.
Shiffrin, the defending gold medalist in the slalom, will be the clear favorite in two events, a leading candidate to win a third race and a wild-card threat in a fourth. She may even enter a fifth event.
That is the plan, if she stays injury-free, even when the path forward is not always clear.
“The mornings are so dark,” Shiffrin said at the bottom of Mammoth’s trails last spring. “But at the top of the mountain, the sun comes up and below me I see my office come into view.
“That’s where I work to become not just the best slalom skier in the world, but the best skier in the world. Period.”
A Winning History
Shiffrin, often a solitary figure on the mountain except for her coaches, hurtled headlong down Mammoth’s ample, steep downhill terrain day after day.
One of those coaches is her mother, Eileen, who travels with her daughter on the World Cup tour and has helped shape her racing technique since Shiffrin was a toddler.
Eileen Shiffrin’s uncommon teaching tactics have included having Mikaela ride a unicycle for balance and having her learn to juggle for coordination and concentration.
“My mom is one of my best friends but she’s always had to play many roles,” Shiffrin said. “She is, for example, the only one who is going to tell my coaches, ‘O.K., Mikaela’s exhausted, let’s all take a nap.’
“But my mom is also the one who told me on my birthday last March: ‘Hey, we don’t have time to go have a party. Stay focused.’ There were a few races left in the season and that’s when I clinched the World Cup overall title.”
In the eight months since her extended training in California, Shiffrin has quieted most of her critics with a startling, momentous winter of racing success.
She has continued a record-setting pace in slalom, winning seven of nine races. But she has also won two giant slalom events and had a second and third place in that discipline as well. She won a downhill race, defeating Vonn, and was third in two other downhills.
This season, she has yet to enter another Olympic event, the Alpine combined, which is a combination of one downhill run and one slalom run, but Shiffrin won the only World Cup Alpine combined she raced in last year, and she will be the favorite in the event at Pyeongchang.
In a fifth event, the super-G, a speedy, risky cousin of the downhill, Shiffrin’s results have been less predictable, although she did have a top five super-G finish this season.
Shiffrin has slumped some in the last few weeks and failed to finish three races, but her lead in the season-long World Cup overall standings remains at 671 points, which is akin to having a 35-point lead in the fourth quarter of a basketball game.
Shiffrin is well aware that the Olympics — not her World Cup achievements — will be the yardstick against which she will continually be measured, at least by the majority of Americans who tune into ski racing only once every four years. That is fair, she says; she grew up watching the Olympics at home, too.
“After many of my victories, I hear people asking me these questions: ‘What else is there to win?’” Shiffrin said as she sat in the quiet of a Vermont lodge between races late last year. “And I want to shout: ‘What do you mean, what else? There’s so much else!’
“I feel like I’m only a quarter of the way through what I can do. And it’s an Olympic year, too.”
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