There is this little girl. Thirteen years ago, on a late autumn afternoon, she goes with her kindergarten classmates to the top of the bunny hill off Lift 12 at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado. It is the first day of their after-school ski program. The children are instructed to ski to the bottom of the hill as best they can, while evaluators at the base observe their skills and divide them into balanced training groups for the winter. One after another the boys and girls lock their skis into wedges the shape of pizza slices and snowplow downhill. All except Mikaela Shiffrin.
Mikaela has never been taught to snowplow. “Skis are designed to make smooth arcs in the snow,” says her father, Jeff, an anesthesiologist. “That’s what we taught her.” So instead of wedging, she cruises down the mountainside carving graceful turns before stopping at the feet of an instructor, who looks down at her incredulously and says, “Well, I don’t have a group for you.”
Six years later the little girl’s family has moved across the country. Her brother, Taylor, is a boarding student at Burke Mountain Academy, a prep school in northern Vermont that specializes in training promising ski racers. Mikaela and her mother, Eileen, live nearby in a condo in East Burke, Vt., while Jeff works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Mikaela is being homeschooled by her mom and training most afternoons with the youngest Burke racers. Among her instructors that winter of 2006–07 is Chip Knight, then 31, a three-time U.S. Olympic ski racer who retired the previous spring. He is amazed at what he sees in this blonde 11-year-old.
“I’m watching her train,” says Knight, “and she’s just incredible. She’s doing things, fundamentally, that I was still working on at the end of my professional career.”
Slightly more than four years after that, the little girl, one day shy of her 16th birthday, is sitting in a base ski lodge in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, awaiting her turn in a World Cup slalom race, her second start at the highest level of the sport. Sitting next to her is Sarah Schleper, a four-time Olympian who is also entered in the race. They are watching the early racers come down the hill. It is something that Schleper usually doesn’t do, because watching makes her nervous. “Even at that point in my career, my confidence wasn’t good enough to watch the other girls,” says Schleper, now 34. “But Mikaela watched them all, and she gave me this insane course report: ‘Here is exactly what you have to do, right here, and here, and here.’ And I went out and had one of my best races of the year. At the time my son was four years old, and Mikaela was closer to his age than to mine. But I felt like she was a more mature athlete than I was.”
This month Shiffrin, now 18 and a world champion, will go to the Winter Olympics as one of the favorites to win the gold medal in slalom and a threat to win a medal in giant slalom, either of which would make her the youngest U.S. Alpine medalist in history. She will attract much of the attention that was reserved for Lindsey Vonn (who will miss the Games because of a knee injury), despite the fact that Shiffrin does not compete until the second week. NBC will lock onto her smile, and her Twitter follower count will go through the roof.
All of this might seem remarkable for such a young racer who has risen so quickly to the top of her sport. Yet in truth it’s been coming for most of Shiffrin’s life—a greatness reached in unconventional ways but long waiting to happen.
I was a coach at a summer ski camp on Mount Hood [Ore.]. Mikaela was nine. At the start of camp, we ask all the kids to write down a Camp Goal and a Dream Goal. For her Dream Goal, Mikaela wrote, “Be in the Olympics at age 16.” Now lots of kids write that kind of stuff, but with Mikaela, all the coaches just looked at each other and said, ‘Yup, I can see that.’ And the only thing that prevented it was, there were no Olympics when she was 16. - Simon Marsh, 44, ski instructor
In January 2012 Shiffrin earned her first World Cup victory, in a slalom in Are, Sweden, and became the second-youngest U.S. skier to win at that level. Since then she has won six of the 10 World Cup slaloms contested, some by astounding margins (and most after listening to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” before the start). She won the slalom at the February 2013 world championships and took home the seasonlong slalom title. At 18 she has already won more World Cup slalom races than any other U.S. woman in history except Tamara McKinney (who won nine). Only Vonn (59), McKinney (18) and Picabo Street (nine) have won more total World Cup races than Shiffrin.
Shiffrin has jolted the ski world with not just her skill—“So solid in every turn, very few mistakes, makes it look easy when it’s not,” says U.S. teammate Ted Ligety, 29, the world’s top-ranked men’s giant slalom skier—but also her emotional maturity. “She’s so young, but mentally she’s one of the strongest skiers on the whole circuit,” says her coach, Roland Pfeifer, 49, an Austrian hired by the U.S. ski team in 2011. “Even when she gets nervous, it doesn’t affect her.”
In early December, two days after finishing second in a World Cup giant slalom at Beaver Creek in Colorado, Shiffrin sat at the dining room table of her family’s home near Vail. Her mother, who travels with her on the World Cup circuit, worked on a laptop in the living room. Shiffrin’s agent, former Austrian Olympian Kilian Albrecht, swiped through messages on his phone.
“I know I’m still the baby of the circuit,” Shiffrin says, “but I’m skiing well and I feel like I belong. Last year if I won a race, I was like, What if this is all a fluke and every other skier has her skis done wrong? What if it was just some magical Christmas story? This year I feel a lot less of that tension. When I’m in the starting gate, it’s just me and the hill.” She shrugs. “Drama,” she says, “holds you back.”
This season Shiffrin has twice reached the podium in giant slalom. Her growing competence in that event is a first step toward adding the straighter, faster downhill and Super G to her repertoire. (At age 15 she skied on a gnarly Super G training course in Chile during summer training. “She flew so far off one jump that I think she freaked her mother out a little bit,” says Adam Chadbourne, her coach at the time. “I asked her, ‘Are you scared?’ She said, ‘Not at all!’ ”)
“No doubt there are overall World Cup titles in her future,” says Ligety, referring to the honor given to the skier who scores the most points in all events combined. Vonn has won it four times.
“She’s going to compete with Lindsey’s records someday, I’m sure of it,” says Schleper. “She’s going to do amazing things.”
History suggests that for U.S. skiers there is rarely a linear path to Olympic medals. There is a well-funded national team structure, yet some of the most successful racers in U.S. history—Phil and Steve Mahre, Bode Miller, Street and Vonn—have developed either at the edges of that system or entirely outside it. Shiffrin, too, has an element of the lone wolf, having moved across the country three times and been taught by her parents that excellence grows from passion, not from demands.
Jeff Shiffrin was raised in Dover, N.J., but often spent weekends skiing with his family at Stratton or Sugarbush in southern Vermont. At 13 he joined the race team at what was then called Great Gorge Ski Resort (now Mountain Creek) in northwestern New Jersey, and on his first day of training he was greeted by an Austrian coach whose only instruction before pushing off the top of the hill was, “Follow me.” It was a teaching tactic that Jeff would remember. He later raced on the ski team at Dartmouth and stayed active in the sport after taking up anesthesiology.
Eileen Condron was a member of the ski team at Mount Greylock Regional High in Williamstown, Mass., in the Berkshires. The school bus dropped her off each afternoon at Brodie Mountain. By the time she was a nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston, where she met Jeff in 1985, she had not been skiing for several years. Jeff remedied that: One of their first dates was at Killington Mountain in central Vermont.
Eileen and Jeff got married in 1986, built a social life around masters (over-30) ski racing and moved in 1991 to Colorado, where the snow was better and the mountains higher. Eileen became a nationally prominent masters racer. Taylor was born in 1992 and Mikaela three years later, on March 13, 1995. (She was given a name her parents deemed Slavic sounding, partly in homage to Jeff’s paternal grandparents, who lived in a small town outside Minsk in Belarus.) The Shiffrins immersed their kids in physical activity: wind surfing, soccer, tennis, even riding unicycles. And skiing. Lots of skiing.
But neither Taylor nor Mikaela ever took a conventional ski lesson (in which they would have been taught to snowplow). They skied with their parents. “It was always ‘Follow me’ or ‘Follow Mom,’ ” says Jeff. “They didn’t get a chance to make too many turns without somebody who had an awful lot of interest in their safety and progress teaching them how to do it right.”
Teachers at Vail recall Mikaela as a prodigy. “She had skills and confidence,” says Marsh, who, before coaching Mikaela at Mount Hood, helped instruct her at age six in the Vail Ski Club. “And she was exceptionally motivated. She just wanted to learn more and more.”
In 2003, when Taylor was 11 and Mikaela eight, the Shiffrins moved to New Hampshire for Jeff’s work. The kids began training and racing with a big ski club, but the training groups were large and parental involvement minimal, so Jeff and Eileen helped start a smaller program at a tiny ski area called Storrs Hill, under director Rick Colt. “Both of us, and Eileen in particular, weren’t prepared to turn our kids’ development over to somebody else,” says Jeff, “particularly if that somebody else has eight or 10 kids they’re responsible for. If you have 35 kids in a school classroom, it’s hard to get anything but mediocrity. Since we had the knowledge and tools, the best way to achieve that was on our own.”
In Mikaela, the Shiffrins say, they were not trying to build an Olympian; they were trying to raise a healthy, strong skier with a love of the sport. They got both. “The goal was always to work toward mastery,” says Jeff. “Race results were important, but they weren’t the overarching goal.” From early in her career, Mikaela would skip races to train, maximizing her repetitions.
“Everyone wants to replicate what I’ve done,” she says. “I remember skiing being a family recreational thing. I feel like we did it differently.”
When Taylor enrolled at Burke, Mikaela spent winters training with Burke racers under coach and headmaster Kirk Dwyer. For two years she thrived under Dwyer, but in 2008 Jeff took a job back in Colorado. Taylor stayed at Burke, and Mikaela, 13, moved to Vail with her parents. Her skiing deteriorated, and for the first time she appeared uninterested. “She felt like she got [cheated] out of boarding at Burke,” says Jeff. “How did that affect her training in Vail? I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t click with new coaches. She wanted to go back to Burke. We made it happen.”
Within three months of returning to Vermont as a boarding student (with Eileen nearby in the condo), Mikaela swept all three races at the Eastern championships and won an international junior race in British Columbia. She developed a voracious appetite for video study, sitting for hours in Dwyer’s office analyzing her technique and that of racers such as Marlies Schild of Austria, the alltime World Cup leader in slalom wins and now, at 32, one of Shiffrin’s biggest rivals. On training afternoons she would be the first racer on Burke Mountain’s single Poma lift and the last one off it.
By 15 Mikaela was traveling the Nor-Am circuit, a North American racing series that prepares young skiers for the World Cup. There she occasionally crossed paths with national team members, and she felt the first pangs of jealousy from skiers who saw her in their rearview mirrors, chasing their financial support. “There were older racers who were just not very nice to her,” says Chadbourne, a Burke coach who accompanied Mikaela on the circuit. At season’s end she raced her first World Cups, in the Czech Republic, and coached Schleper to an 11th-place finish in that slalom event.
Mikaela joined the U.S. ski team in the spring of 2012, already ranked No. 38 in the world in slalom. She would spend her junior and senior years in high school touring Europe in the World Cup, racing and living with women many years her senior. “The ski team initially told us that they wanted the older girls to mentor Mikaela,” says Eileen Shiffrin. “She was 16 years old! And she wasn’t a precocious girl, she was conservative. She had heard all kinds of stories about what goes on out on the World Cup. She said to me, ‘Nobody is going to want to hang out with me. I don’t drink. I don’t party. I don’t sleep with boys.’ ”
The Shiffrins pushed back and demanded that Eileen be allowed to travel with Mikaela. The team relented. Pfeifer says, “Look, they’re obviously an awesome combination. Eileen is a smart lady. Mikaela is comfortable with her around. Without mom here, none of this would have happened.”
Their first year was an adventure. “Every day was a blast, but every day was also something new,” says Mikaela. “Where are the bathrooms? Where is the hotel? Why does the GPS stop here when the mountain is over there?”
Now the Shiffrins have an apartment in Austria to use as a home base of sorts. They watch Friends, Glee and NCIS together. Both have become more comfortable with their shared place on the team, and Mikaela feels closer to teammates such as veteran slalom racer Resi Steigler, 28. “I don’t feel like I’m tagging along anymore,” says Shiffrin. “I feel like we’re friends.” Slowly, the walls have come down.
At the highest level of ski racing, events are decided by small fractions of a second. Last year in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, in the final World Cup slalom, with the season’s slalom title on the line, Shiffrin fell a distant 1.17 seconds behind Tina Maze of Slovenia on the first run. Shiffrin’s second run was a staggering .71 of a second faster than any other racer’s (and 1.52 seconds faster than that of Maze, who had dominated the season). In a rare display of emotion Shiffrin fell to her knees in the finish corral and cried, face buried in her thick gloves.
From the fairy dust of that win, and many others, a question emerges: How does Shiffrin ski so fast? In the technical races of slalom and giant slalom, a skier’s goal is to successfully navigate all the gates while maintaining the straightest—and fastest—line down the course. Because World Cup courses are steep, challenging and often icy or rutted, the best racers are those who can carve the cleanest arc around the gates, minimizing loss of speed. Carving is a complex act involving angulation, power, vision and touch. “Mikaela,” says Pfeifer, “is the carving master. She carves all the way through the turn, so smoothly.”
Knight, primarily a slalomist in his World Cup career, says, “The term we use in ski racing is that she’s early, and by that I mean early in the turn. Ideally a racer wants to put pressure on the ski in the fall line of the hill. If you’re still putting pressure on your ski below the fall line, you’re fighting gravity. By the time Mikaela gets even with the gate, she’s done with her turn. She’s very rarely fighting gravity. You almost never see a big, harsh spray of snow as she passes the gate. She’s not doing acrobatic recoveries, because she’s never in the position where she has to recover. She’s so sound, it’s almost boring.”
Kristina Koznick, who won six World Cup slalom races from 1993 to 2006, says, “I always felt like I had a real solid stance on my skis, very powerful. Mikaela has that. But she also has this unbelievable touch on the snow, and it’s almost magical. I definitely did not have that. I don’t think you can teach it. It’s why she’s good in all conditions. They put water on the hill to freeze it? No problem. It’s snowing? No problem. Ruts? No problem.” Shiffrin’s touch reminds Koznick of four-time Olympic gold medalist Janica Kostelic of Croatia. “Her skis,” Schleper says of Shiffrin, “are extensions of her feet.”
There’s another element, too. “She’s young,” says Ligety. “She feels great. She hasn’t had a lot of adversity. She’s just hammering along with so much confidence, and she might just keep doing that for a long time.”
That youth is always present. When Shiffrin was six her parents had a poster autographed for her by three-time U.S. Olympian Heidi Voelker, who wrote beneath her signature, “A.B.F.T.T.B.” and translated: “Always Be Faster Than the Boys.” Shiffrin wrote it on her skis as a junior racer, and now it’s a decal on her Atomic racing helmet, connecting the small child to the grown-up racer.
Media attention has been relentless, she says, but it’s also been universally supportive, especially from NBC, which creates virtual partnerships with U.S. Olympic athletes. Of course, in time Shiffrin will experience some sort of failure, followed by the sting of criticism. At the mention of this she retreats to her teenaged self. “I think about that,” she says, and then she squeals, “and I’m like, Please don’t be mean to me!”
She will grow a lifetime in Russia. She will win the medals her nation hopes for, or the medals will wait. She will become famous, or the fame will be delayed. But it is only a matter of time. Because all these years later, we still don’t have a group for her.