How Mikaela Shiffrin Became the Best Skier in the World

13 minute read

“You want me to say something that I can’t. I don’t do guarantees, and I’m not gonna start now just so you can bet on me. I have no idea how I’m gonna feel on race day. I only know that right now, I’m happy, I’m skiing fast, and I’m having FUN.”

One hour before racing down a mountain in Flachau, Austria, in early January, the 22-year-old American skier Mikaela Shiffrin typed those words on her phone. It was a text message to herself, a way of coping with the potentially crushing expectations that come with being the most dominant all-around skier in the world and a favorite to win multiple gold medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea. The texts help Shiffrin focus on the present rather than fretting over the future, allowing her prodigious talent to nudge aside her sometimes crippling anxiety.

It worked in Austria. Shiffrin trailed after her first run, but she rallied in the second to win the event, becoming the first woman or man in two decades to win five straight World Cup races. “I can also tell you,” she wrote in that same message, “I’m equipped to handle dang near anything that can possibly come my way.”

Much is riding on those text-message prophecies. Heading into her second Olympics, Shiffrin has the potential to be among the greatest skiers of all time. Already, she is just the second racer in history to record 41 World Cup wins before turning 23. In PyeongChang, she could break the record for most Alpine skiing gold medals won at a single Olympics (three, by Jana Kostelic of Croatia in 2002). Shiffrin is an overwhelming favorite to defend the slalom gold she won at the 2014 Games and a strong bet in the giant slalom—a faster race with less frequent turns. She’s dominant in these technical disciplines, but Shiffrin is also likely to compete in two speed events, the downhill and super-G, as well as the combined (a mix of slalom and downhill)—potentially vying with the veteran American star Lindsey Vonn for the podium.

“Mikaela’s the best I’ve ever seen, male or female, in a few different categories,” says six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller, who will be part of NBC’s skiing coverage in PyeongChang. He considers Shiffrin’s technical prowess and risk management unparalleled and can’t decide whether she compares more to LeBron James because of her physical gifts or to Michael Jordan, since she makes dominance look easy. “She can do whatever she wants,” says Miller.

PyeongChang will be Shiffrin’s biggest stage yet. Without NHL players or a favored women’s figure skating team, the photogenic Coloradan will be one of Team USA’s brightest lights. And since ski races stretch across both weeks of the Games, Shiffrin’s quest for as many as five medals will be one of the biggest stories.

That kind of pressure might have crushed Shiffrin not long ago. In 2016, a sudden bout with anxiety left her sick, crying and questioning her commitment to skiing, even as she kept winning races. “Last season, I would have been like, ‘Oh God, what if I don’t live up to what the face of the Olympics is supposed to do?’ ” she tells TIME during a conversation in the modest home she shares with her parents in Avon, Colo. Now, after a lot of work on her mind as well as her body, Shiffrin insists that she’s ready to carry the weight. “Face of the Olympics or not, I’m the same person,” she says. “It’s a good mental place to be.”

Shiffrin was about 2 when her parents first put her on skis. Her talent was evident early. Jeff Shiffrin, an anesthesiologist, recalls hitting a trail with Mikaela when she was 7 and realizing he was moving at a brisk pace. “I look behind me to see if she is in sight, and she is on my tail,” he says. “She’s like, ‘Go faster.’ ”

Shiffrin during her ’17 world championship slalo race; she’s chasing five Olympic medalsAlexander Hassenstein—Getty Images

Eileen Shiffrin, a former intensive-care nurse, regularly drilled Mikaela and her older brother Taylor, 25, on technique and embraced all manner of training methods. She once bought the kids unicycles on the grounds that the coordination needed to ride one would help their skiing and soccer skills. “She thinks it’s so normal,” says Mikaela as her mother stands nearby, laughing. “No. People don’t do that, Mom. I get on the unicycle, and people are like,‘That’s incredible.’We were a very strange family.”

From an early age, Shiffrin took an interest in the mental aspects of sports. She read books like The Inner Game of Tennis, the seminal 1972 guide to quieting one’s mind in order to reach peak performance. “She was mindful as a 9-year-old,” says John Cole, human-performance director at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, “before anyone knew what that was.”

Shiffrin has been similarly ahead of the curve on sleep. Ever since she played poorly in a middle-school soccer game after staying up late reading horror stories at a slumber party, Shiffrin has been militant about getting enough shut-eye. She’s famous on the World Cup circuit for taking naps, on command, in chairlifts and on the floors of ski lodges.

The Shiffrins sent Mikaela to high school at Burke Mountain Academy, a slopeside school for budding ski racers in Vermont. Even among her fellow athletes, she was single-minded in her devotion to training, often forgoing parties and dates. Of her first high school dance, Shiffrin recalls, “It was all grinding. I was like, ‘Umm, I don’t want to be doing this.’”

“All activities to unshelter herself, she didn’t partake in,” says Shiffrin’s best friend, Bug Pech, a classmate at Burke. Pech remembers one team van ride to a meet when Shiffrin started belting out the lyrics to the raunchy song “The Bad Touch” without realizing how vulgar it was. “The fact that little childlike Mikaela is sitting there singing all of the words was hilarious,” says Pech. “Certain connotations went over her head. The coaches turned around and were like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Shiffrin joined the World Cup tour in 2011 at age 16, and Eileen insisted on traveling with her as both head coach and chaperone. The events are primarily in Europe, and most racers are in their 20s or early 30s. “There’s a huge party scene,” says Shiffrin. “I needed somebody there to protect me.”

Eileen has remained a permanent presence by her daughter’s side, an arrangement that has led to occasional tension with U.S. ski officials and plenty of backbiting from rival racers. But good luck quibbling with the results. Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom gold medalist ever at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and has won four World Cup slalom championships. She won the all-around world title a year ago and sits atop the standings this season. “Anybody who says Eileen isn’t the head technique coach and motivator,” says her husband, “is smoking dope.”

Still, the dynamic can be fraught. “If she’s talking to me as my coach and I’m listening to her as her daughter, that’s one of the most heartbreaking, painful things,” says Shiffrin. “Those conversations can be terrible.” It’s taken years for the star pupil to fully appreciate the distinction between the two roles. “Just because she might be hard on me on the slopes, which I ask her to be, because that’s the only way I can keep improving, doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me as a mom,” says Shiffrin. “I’m starting to really grasp that. And it’s awesome.”

Eileen, however, couldn’t save Shiffrin from herself a year ago, during the season that threatened to derail her career. Before the first slalom race of the year, in Levi, Finland, in November 2016, bad weather prevented her from training as much as she wanted. Rather than the typical prerace butterflies, Shiffrin felt as if a string were tied around her throat. She dry-heaved right before her second run, then wiped her eyes, lowered her goggles and somehow won the race.

Rough weather once again set back her training before the next races in Killington, Vt., and Shiffrin’s stomach started churning again. On the day of her slalom race, Eileen and Mike Day, one of her coaches, were talking race strategy on a chairlift when Shiffrin began to dry-heave.

Again, she managed to pull it together and win, but it was clear that she was starting to crack from the pressure. “There will be more, of everything,” she wrote in a tortured note to herself while working out in Sestriere, Italy, before a December competition. “More sweat. More fluorescent-lit hallways of constant dreaming that I will come out having achieved my goals, having looked like I know what I was doing, with no end in sight, aside from the dimmest flicker of firelight that reminds me to believe that I deserve to have faith in my dreams. I will have good days. As long as I am willing to have the bad.”

The next day, out of sight of the TV cameras, Shiffrin vomited her coffee a few minutes before the start of a slalom race.

Shiffrin’s team realized that she needed help. They cut back her race schedule, and, critically, Shiffrin began talking to Lauren Loberg, a sports psychologist and family friend who also works in the NFL’s player-engagement office.

During their first Skype session, Loberg could see that Shiffrin was worn down; she gagged while describing her problem with vomiting before races. “Today everything sort of blew up in my mind,” she wrote to Loberg in January after a training session. “I was trying really hard but not able to do things that I wanted.”

Loberg encouraged Shiffrin to stop talking about trying. “If you think about it,” says Loberg, “trying is the opposite of relaxing.”

Shiffrin atop the podium at the World Cup giant-slalom race in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, on Jan. 6Christophe Pallot—Agence Zoom/Getty Images

It was a simple message, but it gave Shiffrin permission to focus on each moment as it came. Her anxiety began to subside and her meals began to stay down. Going into Shiffrin’s final slalom run at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Shiffrin was battling hometown favorite Wendy Holdener for the title. It’s your home, everybody thinks it’s your day, Shiffrin thought at the start gate, mentally addressing Holdener. But it’s not your day. It’s my day. Shiffrin won by 1.64 sec.—an eternity in Alpine skiing. “It was incredible,” she says. “I beat myself.”

Shiffrin has also begun to emerge from her ski-centric cocoon. She has a boyfriend, the French Olympic skier Mathieu Faivre. And she’s willing to wade into social issues. Shiffrin says she admires the NFL players who knelt in protest of inequality during the national anthem. “If patriotism was as simple as a flag and standing for your anthem, you can consider every country as patriotic as the U.S., right?” says Shiffrin. “But they’re not. It’s about fighting for what you believe in. These athletes are actually showing more patriotism than I’ve ever seen before.” Still, Shiffrin says she would accept the Olympians’ customary White House invitation from President Trump on the basis of her positive experience in Washington after Sochi in 2014.

An athlete’s demons are never really slayed so much as waylaid. Shiffrin’s Olympic year got off to a rocky start, with a fifth-place finish in her first World Cup race, in October. Two weeks later, she lost to Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova in slalom despite being favored to win. Doubt began creeping back in. “I skied as hard as I could and still couldn’t beat her,” says Shiffrin. “All of a sudden I was questioning everything.”

Ahead of her races at Killington in late November, Shiffrin sent me a text message that didn’t exactly brim with confidence. “Right now I’m feeling … uncertain,” she wrote, adding an emoji of an exasperated woman covering her face with her hand. “On the plus side, I have not puked this year! Ha-ha.”

Shiffrin has continued working with Loberg, but the confidence boost this time came from an additional source: Eminem. The rapper’s song “Guts Over Fear” struck a chord, and Shiffrin scribbled the words onto 12 pages of notebook paper. “It started to put me in this mind-set of instead of being scared, I was just going to basically get pissed off,” she says.

Shiffrin won the slalom in Killington and went on a historic tear. In December and early January, she won eight of nine World Cup starts and clinched her first downhill victory, making her a threat in Vonn’s strongest race. Not that Shiffrin’s dominance in South Korea is assured. Vonn is the all-time leader in women’s World Cup wins, with 79, and the 2010 Olympic gold medalist is a far more decorated speed racer than Shiffrin and a favorite in the downhill. Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg and Tessa Worley of France, meanwhile, are ahead of Shiffrin in the current giant-slalom standings.

This time, however, Shiffrin is up for the challenge. “I have the opportunity to absolutely blow the lights out in these Olympics,” she says. Perspective will only help her quest (along with ample helpings of “Guts Over Fear”: “I can rap it word for word perfectly,” Shiffrin boasts).

While riding in a car through Italy in January, Shiffrin typed another missive to herself on her phone. “Value love, not triumph. Remember moments, not victories. Count memories, not medals.”

The key to rewriting the Olympic record book, it seems, might be the words you write to yourself.

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