Mikaela Shiffrin immediately wanted to take it back.
Running on two hours of sleep and just 13 hours after winning her first and only gold at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the skier said she dreams of winning five gold medals at the 2018 Olympics. She also said it “sounds really crazy.”
“That sounds really rude and arrogant,” Shiffrin says, “and who am I to think that I’m allowed to win five gold medals anywhere in ski racing? It’s one thing to be in swimming, where there’s so many different [events]. Michael Phelps can win that many gold medals. But I’m this dinky little 19-year-old. Who am I?”
Today, she is arguably the world’s best technical skier, excelling in slalom and giant slalom, two of the four Alpine disciplines.
She may be the world’s best skier, period, by 2018. Perhaps much earlier.
The next three years are about making five gold medals — done only once at a single Winter Games, by speed skater Eric Heiden — less of a dream and more of a possibility. The best any Alpine skier has done at one Olympics is three golds, by Toni Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy and most recently by Janica Kostelic in 2002. No Alpine skier has won five Olympic gold medals in their career. Variables, such as wind gusts or course ruts, can derail even the most accomplished skiers.
Not to mention Shiffrin hasn’t expanded to all the Alpine disciplines.
The Coloradoan whose helmet bears the acronym ABFTTB (Always Be Faster Than The Boys) thinks she could eventually outpace the top women in skiing’s speed events. Super-G and downhill require a different set of racing skills than she currently possesses. (The fifth Olympic Alpine event, super combined, is made up of one downhill and one slalom.)
Shiffrin covets not only Olympic gold medals, but also the sport’s single greatest trophy. That’s the crystal globe that goes to the World Cup overall champion every year, crowning the best skier across all disciplines.
“I have no doubt that she has the talent,” says NBC Sports Alpine analyst Steve Porino. “I just don’t know if it’s going to happen tomorrow. She’s still developing.”
Shiffrin spent the nine months since Sochi working toward those goals. She’s seen strides and struggles, proof there’s no assurance she will be favored to win more gold medals than the one in 2014.
That made no difference at the White House on April 3. The skier learned there that her press conference comment had reached President Barack Obama, who mentioned it in a live-broadcast address to a group of Sochi Olympians.
“She said she wants to win five gold in 2018,” Obama started out, gazing down on Team USA.
Shiffrin’s jaw dropped. Her face turned beet red. Olympic teammates turned and looked at her. She said those few seconds in a crowded hall felt like an hour.
“I’ve just got three words of advice,” Obama directed to Shiffrin. “Go for it.”
Shiffrin returned from the Olympics to all sorts of gifts — her likeness on a Wheaties box, her own street in her hometown of Vail, cider doughnuts from an autograph seeker and scones from a New Zealand cab driver.
Less visible in the offseason was her devotion to training giant slalom, her secondary event.
Shiffrin owns the trifecta of titles in the slalom — Olympics, World Championships and World Cup. But entering this season in the giant slalom, she had never won in 24 tries over the same three competitions.
“I think my slalom’s at a point where I’m really comfortable with where I’m at,” Shiffrin said in the summer. “That leaves a little more room for training [giant slalom], which is what I need.”
The progression from technical skier to overall skier goes from mastering slalom to giant slalom to adding super-G and downhill. Shiffrin wanted to check off a giant slalom victory before diving into super-G.
After getting her wisdom teeth removed, she spent five weeks training in New Zealand and more time analyzing film of the world’s best giant slalom skier, Olympic men’s champion Ted Ligety.
“I like to watch the men because I like the way they’re aggressive toward skiing fast,” Shiffrin says. “They don’t look like they’re scared of anything. Women, the smallest thing can set a girl back two seconds. Like if fog blows in. Or if there’s a little bump in the course. It just seems, girls are so wimpy, myself included. I’m shooting to be more the man mentality. I still want to be soft and smooth and elegant and feminine when I ski, but I want to have a little bit more of that mental toughness.”
Shiffrin then watched film with Ligety for the first time in October, in the days leading to the first races of the World Cup season, men’s and women’s giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.
She sat behind Ligety and his coaches in a room. Ligety studied in silence for 15 minutes. Then he turned around to Shiffrin, who is 11 years younger.
“So, do you want to know anything?” Shiffrin recalled him saying
“Yeah,” Shiffrin says. “How do you ski so fast?”
Shiffrin is known for listening to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” before races, a song that she can play on the piano. But when she stepped to the starting gate in Soelden on Oct. 25, wearing bib No. 1 as the first skier to go in the first event of the season, she chose the just-downloaded We are only what we feel, the debut album of Swedish pop rock trio NONONO.
The atmosphere felt like the Olympics or World Championships, Shiffrin says. The uncertainty of what would happen. Had she done everything right in the summer? Had other skiers prepared better?
Shiffrin skied soundly to the bottom, posted a time, but figured it would not hold up after the rest of the field skied.
“She felt like she had a lot more in the tank to go faster,” says her mother, Eileen, whom she travels with on the World Cup tour.
Yet Shiffrin’s time wasn’t beaten. She skied last during the second run, after a four-hour break to ponder her lead of nine hundredths of a second. She developed an upset stomach.
That second run did not sit as well, 14th-fastest. The last skiers to go are generally at a disadvantage as the course gets carved up by the preceding women. But Shiffrin held on to tie for the victory with Austrian Anna Fenninger, the reigning World Cup overall and giant slalom champion.
Shiffrin didn’t mind sharing the top step of the podium with the world’s best skier from the previous season, and on Fenninger’s home snow.
“It was a huge relief, because that tie, or win, I don’t know what we call it now, it represents a lot of work,” her mother says. “It’s an enormous amount of mental pressure off of her. Now she can take that same stuff that she had been working on into her super-G.”
The victory gave her and her coach of 3 1/2 years, Roland Pfeifer, confidence to set her first World Cup super-G start in Val d’Isere, France, on Dec. 21.
Swiss Stefan Abplanalp was hired as the women’s speed events coach for the U.S. Ski Team in April and has little experience working with Shiffrin. Of what he has seen, in person and on video, he believes Shiffrin won’t need much time to feel comfortable in super-G. Winning is another matter.
“Top 20, top 15, that would be a good result to start,” he says.
Val d’Isere was the same venue where Lindsey Vonn aggravated her surgically repaired right knee during a downhill run in an attempt to prepare for the Sochi Olympics (she tore her ACL, MCL and suffered a tibial plateau fracture earlier that year). This year’s Val d’Isere super-G is on the one-year anniversary of Vonn’s run. It could be the first time Shiffrin and Vonn go in the same race since Jan. 27, 2013.
Shiffrin and Vonn have been the subject of many comparisons, though they are different skiers and Vonn is three inches taller. Vonn was the world’s greatest speed-events skier before her injury but hasn’t made a podium in slalom in five years.
Vonn’s favorite venue is Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, which has been called Lake Lindsey because of her overwhelming success, so great that she’s petitioned to race against men there.
Shiffrin laughed when asked this summer if she thought she could race in Lake Louise this December, a course that typically favors bigger skiers because of the extra speed they generate on the steeper, straighter super-G and downhill course.
“I’ve got to get some more meat packed on me before I can expect to do well there,” she said, smiling.
Six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller is perhaps the finest example of a young technical skier evolving into an overall champion. When Miller was 20, he skied only slalom and giant slalom at the 1998 Olympics at 190 pounds.
By 2002, experts praised Miller’s slalom similarly to how they speak of Shiffrin’s prowess.
In the Salt Lake City Olympics combined event, Miller came from 15th place after the downhill run to win silver after two slalom runs. His second slalom run was an enormous 1.18 seconds faster than anybody else.
“I’ve never seen anybody ski so fast,” says gold medalist Kjetil Andre Aamodt, the most decorated Olympic Alpine skier ever with eight medals, who compared Miller to Italian legend Alberto Tomba that day in Utah. “He’s revolutionized the way of skiing.”
Miller went on to notch World Cup victories in every discipline, from slalom to downhill plus combined races. He won two World Cup overall titles.
He also gained about 30 pounds over several years after the 1998 Olympics, which helped increase his speed in downhill and super-G. He slowly lost his technical dominance in the process, winning his last slalom in 2004. Miller hasn’t finished in the top 10 of a slalom race in nearly six years and is now a speed events specialist in the twilight of his career.
The greatest all-around skiers in recent memory — Miller and women’s champions Anja Paerson, Tina Maze and Janica Kostelic — each had about a two-year window where they were among the top in every discipline.
Mastering them all and keeping that grip is incredibly difficult. And that’s if a skier even gets that far. Speed events carry greater injury risk than the technical ones.
“I’ve seen so many great technical skiers all of a sudden try to do speed and ended up being hurt,” Pfeifer says. “They had a really promising career ahead of them, and then it just stopped.”
Kostelic retired at 25, after 10 knee operations. Vonn blew out her knee in the super-G at the 2013 World Championships, rushed her return and needed more surgery in January, ruling her out of Sochi.
Swiss skier Lara Gut, who won two silver medals at the 2009 World Championships at age 17, looked to be the biggest threat to Vonn at the 2010 Olympics. But Gut dislocated a hip in a training crash in September 2009 and missed the entire season.
“The one thing that would prevent [Shiffrin], I think, from being a great all-arounder is patience,” Porino says. “If she doesn’t cross her Ts and dot her Is on the things that could keep her out of the hospital — managing the terrain and air time [super-G and downhill racing includes flying off jumps, unlike in slalom]. You really have to train that.”
In Shiffrin’s second race this season, she finished 11th in a slalom in Levi, Finland. She won four of the final five World Cup slaloms last season.
She arrived late to the venue inside the Arctic Circle due to travel delays, but her agent, former World Cup racer Kilian Albrecht, said she looked fine in the abbreviated training that she did get before the race.
“It would be a problem if she had a bad run in training,” Albrecht says. “She’s only 19, and I think she should be allowed to not have a good [race] day. She has done so much and been so great. Like 99 percent of the time she has delivered.”
Even last season, Shiffrin had a 12th-place finish in one of her eight World Cup slaloms.
The variables in ski racing – such as weather and course conditions changing mid-race – make it that even a dominant slalom skier like Shiffrin can’t be expected to win every time (though she has also dreamed of doing that over an entire season).
But any poor slalom result is a reminder that neither Miller nor Paerson kept their slalom prowess as they became better in speed events. As Shiffrin devotes more time to super-G, there are other women skiing only technical events with a target on the American’s back.
Shiffrin is boosted by her corner, including her mother, who is shedding more day-to-day responsibilities to her daughter in her fourth season, such as banking and shopping. Shiffrin still must work on her German, though.
There’s also Albrecht, who unlike many agents, is at just about every race and isn’t juggling several clients at once.
He’s been careful about Shiffrin’s media and endorsements.
“P&G [Proctor & Gamble], that was the only sponsor we added going into the [Sochi] Games,” he says of Shiffrin, who was recognized by no one during a summer trip to New York, except for sports writers. She gets stopped overseas, reminiscent of Miller, who once wore a shirt with the words, “I’m big in Europe.”
“We have to be careful that a brand fits to her image and her style and what she’s representing and her values,” Albrecht says.
Which is primarily about skiing for now. There’s plenty to keep her busy.
Shiffrin raced in lower-level super-Gs in Colorado last week and finished 15th and 16th, behind at least four other U.S. women in both events. And neither Vonn nor four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso were part of those fields.
She said she took her “foot off the gas” in the first race and didn’t know how to handle going higher off a jump than she anticipated in the second one. Channeling high speeds and air are not obstacles she deals with racing from gate to gate in slaloms.
Shiffrin said after those 15th- and 16th-place finishes that she didn’t want to race super-G at February’s World Championships unless she felt like she could win. But that’s not realistic at this point, Pfeifer says.
“She needs to get comfortable [in super-G, which requires longer skis], not to get hurt and be able to ski in training and transfer it into the race,” he says. “Winning is kind of a little bit longer term.”
Shiffrin has more than three years until the Olympics, the next time many sports fans will pay close attention to her. Come 2018, they may only remember her from Sochi, winning slalom gold at 18 and divulging the dream of entering all five events the next time, and winning them all.
“Who am I to say I can win five gold medals?” Shiffrin says now. “Most other racers would say it’s impossible to win five gold medals. It’s too much time and effort. What if you get sick or hurt? But I’m like, well what if you don’t? What if you’re there, and you have the chance, and it comes down to the last race. You’re in the position to win your fifth gold medal. Who’s to say you’re not going to do it?
“I feel like a lot of people don’t stretch those boundaries. … I’m trying to show people what’s not impossible.”