Mikaela Shiffrin – Team USA’s Golden Girl?

STORY BY Megan Hughes

Mikaela Shiffrin is a normal 22-year-old. A normal 22-year old with the three Olympic medals, four World Championship medals and a whopping 41 FIS Alpine World Cup wins that is.

In the lead up to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Mikaela Shiffrin was hailed as the one to beat in multiple alpine ski racing disciplines. She was a safe bet for gold in the slalom, while her impressive recent form in downhill has meant that she was a medal contender in even that, her least favoured discipline. Yet with the potential for her to sweep success across the board, things didn’t go quite to plan in Pyeongchang.

While she has come away with both a gold and a silver medal, there lingers a slight sense of disappointment that we didn’t get to see her perform as we know she can across all the races. Indeed, there were issues in Pyeongchang that were beyond anyone’s control and Shiffrin certainly made the most of the hand she was dealt, but it begs the question of whether too much was expected of her in the first place?

Mikaela Shiffrin burst onto the alpine ski racing scene in 2011, achieving her first World Cup victory a year later at just 16 years old. Many were shocked by the incredible speed of this youngster, but those who knew her weren’t expecting anything less. The child of two former ski racers and born in Vail, Colorado, Shiffrin was almost destined to be a ski racer.

In 2013, she won her first Slalom World Cup (she would go on to win four Slalom World Cups between 2013 and 2017) and from here onwards, she began to rack up the victories. At Sochi 2014, she became the youngest athlete in history to win an Olympic slalom gold medal. This meant that Shiffrin ended the 2014 season with an Olympic gold, World Cup title, and World Championship in slalom.

She went on to retain her World Cup and World Championship titles in 2015, before a solid start to 2016. In the opening race, Shiffrin took America’s first victory in Aspen since 1981, with a winning margin of 3.07 seconds (the largest winning margin in women’s slalom since 1968). Suffering an injury, Shiffrin only competed in five slalom races during the 2016 season. However, she won all five with a combined winning time of 10.56 seconds – that’s an average winning margin of 2.11 seconds. In a sport such as ski racing, where victories can come down to 0.01 seconds, this is an extremely impressive feat.

In 2017, aged just 22, Mikaela Shiffrin became the fifth American skier ever to win an Overall title. She also won her fourth World Cup slalom title and finished the second overall in the giant slalom standings. With the second-most World Cup victories by a U.S. woman (behind only her team-mate Lindsey Vonn), she came into 2018 a legitimate threat across the board in alpine ski racing.

It’s well known that ski racers have incredible work ethics. To do what they do, week in, week out, you have to have to constantly be working to maintain your mental and physical fitness. However, Shiffrin’s training regime has a reputation, even amongst her fellow racers, for being particularly intense. She lives, breathes and eats ski racing.

At the start of 2018, it was looking like this was going to be Shiffrin’s year for sure. No-one could stop her and her chances of retaining her Olympic gold were looking brighter and brighter. Between December 19th 2017 and January 9th 2018, she won 8 of the 9 races on the World Cup circuit – 4 Slalom, 2 Giant Slalom, and 2 Parallel Slalom. Shiffrin was toted as the one to beat in pretty much all the disciplines in the Winter Olympics (with the exception of maybe the downhill – although even here she was a safe bet for a medal).

However, as the Winter Olympics got closer, her form seemed to take a slight dip, with two 7th place finishes and 3 DNFs. Was the pressure getting to America’s slalom star?

Coming into the Games, things got slightly more complicated. The Super-G, her first race, was postponed due to wind, meaning that the women had to run two events on two consecutive days. While the first went incredibly well, leading her to gain her second Olympic medal, the first in Giant Slalom, this apparently took its toll.

The next day came the Slalom, her preferred race and the one in which she is often seconds ahead of her nearest competitors in recent years. Although we all know that anything can happen in ski racing (look at Ester Ledecka’s victory in the women’s Super-G) for Shiffrin to come in fourth was a shock to say the least. After the race she revealed that she had been throwing up prior to the competition. Although this may have just been nerves, the rumours of Norovirus going round the Olympic village brought a chill to many Shiffrin fans.

The issues continued, as the Women’s Alpine Combined event was moved up to Thursday due to strong winds in the forecast for Friday. This meant that it would be the day after Wednesday’s downhill. As a result, and perhaps very sensibly, Shiffrin opted to forgo the downhill, instead focusing her sights on the combined, the discipline she favours of the two.

She said: “As much as I wanted to compete in the Olympic Downhill, with the schedule change, it’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined.”

This decision paid off. Fourth after the downhill leg, she put in a classic Shiffrin slalom run to take the silver medal. With this result, she became the first American woman in 66 years to win at least a gold and a silver medal in alpine skiing at one Olympics.

However, it’s a mark of her talent that two Olympic medals, while an incredible achievement, will be received by some with a hint of disappointment. Considering her dominance of alpine skiing over the last few years, many had thought that Shiffrin would compete (and be in medal contention) in all five alpine disciplines.

This being said, events in Pyeongchang have also proved a fantastic testament to how much talent there is in ladies alpine ski racing at the moment. With such competition, domination from one skier in these Games was practically impossible. From Sofia Goggia claiming Italy’s first ever women’s downhill skiing medal, to Ester Ledecka winning the Super-G on a pair of borrowed skis, this has been a Winter Games to remember for women’s ski racing. Even Lindsey Vonn, arguably one of the best alpine ski racers ever, could only claim bronze in the downhill, her favoured event. If Pyeongchang has done one thing, it’s to show that we are in the midst of a very exciting time, where alpine ski racing holds a huge amount of female talent.

While she may not have experienced the gold rush some were predicting, Pyeongchang was definitely a Shiffrin success. 3 Olympic medals at the age of 22 is an inspiring achievement, especially considering the unforeseen issues that Pyeongchang threw up, and Shiffrin is just getting better. She’s an incredibly exciting skier to watch and we can’t wait to see how her career unfolds. Lindsey Vonn, at 33-years old, has a record-breaking 81 World Cup wins. The question is – how many records will Mikaela Shiffrin break?

Featured Image Credits – Team USA (Facebook)

 

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