Downhill dynamo Mikaela Shiffrin is at the top of her sport. She took gold in the most recent Winter Olympics, and is the reigning world champion in slalom. She holds the title of the youngest woman in U.S. history to win a World Championship and the youngest athlete in history to win an Olympic Gold medal. She holds the U.S. record for medals in slalom with 19 career World Cup wins and one giant slalom win, and surpassed skiing legend Tamara McKinney in medals. She’s broken records, and she’s not slowing down. And here’s the best part of this epic story: this skiing legend is just 21 years of age.
Born in Vail, Colorado, Shiffrin began racing at age six, entering her first professional races as soon as she was eligible to compete. She’s racked up numerous wins during her professional career, and when she won the U.S. National Championships at age 16, she became the youngest American skier to win a national alpine medal. Since her auspicious start in down-hill racing, Shiffrin has competed around the globe, earning an impressive array of medals in slalom and giant slalom events. At the age of 18, she took gold at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, becoming the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history. Best of all, Shiffrin is a rare combination of youthful innocence and seasoned wisdom. She possesses a gritty determination and maturity that falls well beyond her young age, and understands what it takes to win it all. She’s poised, she’s smart, and she’s a winner. Colorado Hotel Magazine recently interviewed Shiffrin to learn a bit more about this refreshingly candid world-class athlete and Olympian.
CHM: You demonstrated a love of ski-ing at the age of just 2 or 3. What made you fall in love with the sport?
SHIFFRIN: I started to love skiing because it was something I did with my whole family and my friends. I have really fond memories of skiing all day with my parents, brother, and friends. My love for skiing turned into a passion for ski racing when I was about six years old and I skied in my first race.
CHM: When did you start ski racing and when did you start to take it seriously?
SHIFFRIN: I always took ski racing really seriously because I enjoyed it so much. I’m pretty competitive and I wanted to win everything, even when I was six. I always wanted to beat all the boys and the older kids and generally anyone who was expected to be faster than I was.
CHM: Which event is your personal favorite?
SHIFFRIN: I don’t really have a favorite, each event brings something different and exciting to the table, but what I love the most is finding the similarities between each event. Even slalom and downhill have similarities, even though they look like polar opposites.
CHM: 2016 was the best of your career so far. What was the highlight of that year for you personally?
SHIFFRIN: One of the biggest highlights of my season last year was coming back from my injury and still winning the last couple races by over two seconds. When I was off snow for two months in the middle of the season doing rehab I really questioned whether I would be able to come back full strength during the season, let alone win again. So to be able to win the last three slalom races of the season was a huge milestone.
CHM: What has been the toughest race for you so far?
SHIFFRIN: There was one race a couple years ago in Maribor, Slovenia, when I just felt so tired and sluggish I didn’t even want to race, I just wanted to get back in bed and sleep for a week! That was tough because it was an important race in my hunt for the slalom title and I needed to pull myself together and muster up the energy to have a good race. The great thing about ski racing is that each run is only about 60 seconds, so even when you’re tired you can often find the strength to put down a good run.
CHM: What did it feel like the first time you were on the podium? Is it still the same rush?
SHIFFRIN: My first time on the podium was so surreal, but I couldn’t help but think “alright, I know I can contend with the best in the world… now I want to win”. That’s sort of the way it’s been my whole World Cup career— I’m always looking to get faster so I’m never really satisfied, but the feeling of standing on top of the podium singing the national anthem is incredibly special.
CHM: How do you prepare for each race?
SHIFFRIN: My preparation varies depend-ing on how I feel the night before the race and the day of the race. If I’m tired I would tend to lay low and get as much rest as I can; if my legs feel sluggish I will make sure to do a good warmup and muscle activation workout the day before the race, so I really play it by ear. The one really consistent thing I do is eat pasta the night before the race, usually with a meat sauce but not too heavy. It’s pretty much the only thing I can stomach.
CHM: Do you still get race day nerves?
SHIFFRIN: For sure, especially on the first race of the season. I get really nervous because I don’t have a clue of where I stack up compared to the other girls. Once the season has gotten going and I have found a groove I usually feel better, not so nervous for races.
CHM: What goes through your mind when you’re on the course?
SHIFFRIN: Normally my mind is pretty free. I visualize the course a lot before my race run so I know what to expect when I’m skiing, and I get a course report from my coaches a few minutes before I start to know if there are any surprises with the course conditions or a specific area where a lot of girls are struggling. So by the time I actually ski I know what’s going on and I can just let my skiing take over.
CHM: What are your goals for the 2017 season?
SHIFFRIN: I have several different goals. I’d like to take back the slalom globe, as well as win the GS globe for the first time. Of course I’m also shooting for medaling at world championships, and come mid-season if I find that I’m really in the running for the Overall title that will become a priority as well.
CHM: Do you have a particular race that was especially memorable or gratifying?
SHIFFRIN: I have some great memories from a lot of my races, but I’d say winning the World Championships slalom in Vail-Beaver Creek was a really incredible day. I never expected to have the opportunity to race a big event in my hometown in the first place, but to win in front of my home crowd was a giant cherry on top of a pretty sweet cake.
CHM: When you were growing up, did you have a feeling or belief that one day you would be skiing on the US Ski Team?
SHIFFRIN: It’s not that I truly believed or didn’t believe that I would make it to the US Ski Team and win World Cups someday, I just remember watching videos of the best skiers in the world and admiring their skiing so much that I decided I wanted to try my best to get to that level.
CHM: Talk about how you feel when you’re flying down the mountain on your skis.
SHIFFRIN: The feeling of flinging yourself down the mountain can be pretty scary sometimes, but when I do it well and I feel like I have the perfect balance between reckless abandon and control, it is unlike anything else I’ve ever felt.
CHM: How do you prepare for the season?
SHIFFRIN: Preparation for each race season includes a LOT of time working out and getting stronger and fitter, and quite a bit of time on the snow as well in places like New Zealand and Chile. I’ll spend around 5-6 hours per day doing conditioning work in the off-season and we have two ski camps per summer that last anywhere between two to four weeks each. I get on snow in Europe for the last prep-camp in the beginning of October for about three weeks of training before the first race of the season at the end of October.
CHM: How do you stay in shape during the off-season?
SHIFFRIN: I’m in the gym lifting weights about four days per week, and I do a lot of biking, running, sprinting, agility, balance and core for my sessions surrounding the strength workouts.
CHM: Talk a bit about your family.
SHIFFRIN: My brother is the reason I got into ski racing. I always followed in his footsteps and when he started racing at our local club I naturally wanted to do the same. He’s two years older than I am so I always saw it as a welcome challenge to ski with him and try to beat him, but he didn’t let that happen often! My parents are both great skiers, and they both raced a bit between high school and college, so it was a natural path for me to become a sufficient skier as well. However I think the greatest lessons my parents have taught me were not necessarily specific to skiing, but about life and hard work in general. I learned from them that if I enjoy something and I want to do it well I need to work hard at it and study it. They also taught me that most things are more fun to do when you are able to do them well, so it’s worth putting in the extra time in the beginning when you’re learning something new in order to have more fun doing it in the long run. Tennis for instance, is so much more fun when you are able to hit a good rally or reach certain shots that you can only reach because you’ve put in the effort and have the skill. It’s the same mentality that I’ve taken into skiing and it’s a huge reason why I am where I am today.
CHM: If you were not a ski racer, what would you be doing?
SHIFFRIN: There are a lot of things I could be doing. I also love to play tennis and soccer so I might have pursued those sports more seriously if I decided not to ski. Or I would probably be in college getting ready to graduate, maybe majoring in something science-related because I always enjoyed science in school. I feel like the possibilities are endless, which is what makes life really exciting.
CHM: Favorite run in Vail?
SHIFFRIN: Main Arena, where all of the training normally takes place. I really like training there but the trail is super fun to freeski on as well when there is some space between courses and the snow is good. It’s one of the greatest places to arc GS turns.
CHM: Favorite song?
SHIFFRIN: Runaway (U & I) [Svidden & Jarly Remix] – Galantis or The Rifle’s Spiral – The Shins. I have a lot of other favorite songs as well but those are two that I won’t ever skip over.
CHM: Favorite food?
SHIFFRIN: Pasta with a tomato, mozzarella, basil sauce, or Thanksgiving stuffing … or maybe chocolate cake.
CHM: Favorite restaurant in Vail?
SHIFFRIN: La Botega.
CHM: Favorite activity/activities when you’re not on skis?
SHIFFRIN: Tennis, or pretty much anything that involves hanging out with my family.
CHM: Who are some of the most fun people you’ve had an opportunity to ski with?
SHIFFRIN: My family and friends. There’s nothing like feeling totally at ease on a chairlift ride with the people closest to you and then bombing down the mountain with them by your side.
CHM: Role models in skiing?
SHIFFRIN: Bode Miller, Janica Kostelic, Anja Paerson, Marlies Schild, Lindsey Vonn (Kildow), Marcel Hirscher.
CHM: Role models in life?
SHIFFRIN: Steve Jobs, Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Adele, Serena Williams.
CHM: Advice for younger kids just getting started in the world of ski racing?
SHIFFRIN: Ski racing can be really tough – there’s a lot of preparation, equipment, and work involved in being a good racer – but because it’s so challenging it can also be one of the most gratifying things that you will ever do. Enjoy it, enjoy the friends you make who will often be some of your best friends for the rest of your life, and enjoy the work that you have to put into it. Ski racing is like a dry-run for the rest of life no matter what level you are at, so really take advantage of the lessons you learn and take them with you wherever you go.