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Mikaela Shiffrin Is Embracing the Spotlight, Pressures as the Face of American Ski Racing

After the retirement of Lindsey Vonn and following another historic, record-breaking season, how is Mikaela Shiffin dealing with expectation?

After reaching 60 Alpine skiing World Cup wins at a historical pace and posting a record-shattering 17-win season, Mikaela Shiffrin and the term “GOAT” are starting to become well-aquianted. She’s well aware of it, too.

After her historic season—which featured World Cup titles in the slalom, giant slalom, super-G and yet another overall title—came to an end, Shiffrin continued to race against the clock in New York in late March, as she bounced around for apperances and interviews, prepared to answer questions about her status in the sport. With the retirement of Lindsey Vonn, it's safe to say that Shiffrin has officially taken the reigns of American ski racing. SI caught up with the 24-year-old at the launch event of her new watch, the Longines Conquest Chronograph, at Macy’s in New York City to discuss her goals for the future, how she manages expectations in her career and more.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

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SI: You just turned 24. Looking at your resume—Olympic gold medals, 60 World Cup victories and three straight overall titles—is this something you imagined when you were six years old?

MS: Honestly, I don't think you can process this. It’s still almost impossible to process that I’ve won Olympic medals, or World Championship medals. This season, as spectacular as it was and I realize that, it’s impossible to really process that or understand it. All of the statistics and the records, I don't even want to get into that because I don't know what to say about it. It’s spectacular, but if you told me when I was seven years old, or even last year that this was was going to happen, I’d say, “You’re pullin’ my leg.”

SI: Out of all of these victories, what has been the most surreal moment of your career?

MS: I think the most surreal was probably winning the Olympic GS in South Korea or this year winning the slalom at World Championships. I was really sick for the slalom race.

SI: That was your Jordan flu game.

MS: That was my flu game. [Laughter] I had some kind of self-diagnosed pneumonia-esque thing going on, or on the verge of it. I couldn’t breathe, I was coughing so hard that my stomach would go into spasms and then I would just be dry heaving. I was thinking, “OK I’m just going to go race, I guess.”

AB: It doesn’t seem like you get a lot of time off, but what do you enjoy doing when you do?

MS: My go to is watching a TV show or going to a movie theater and having popcorn, that’s a must. Sometime this year, maybe in May, I’ll get a couple of weeks for a vacation. Normally if I have vacation time, I go someplace tropical to a beach. Something different. Otherwise, I’ll get a little bit of time at home, and I have some media sponsor obligations to do for the …  rest of my life. [Laughter]

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AB:Take me behind the scenes of what goes on before a race. How do you get locked in? Is there anything specific or is it just a matter of flipping a switch?

MS: Sometimes it’s almost like flipping a switch, it’s that easy. But normally I listen to music, that helps me a lot. I have a particular playlist that has a whole range of songs.

AB: What’s on that playlist?

MS: One song, one that I’ve talked about a lot, is “Guts Over Fear” by Eminem. Definitely some other Eminem songs, too. He’s a classic pump-me-up kind of guy. I have some Ellie Goulding on there, a lot of Kygo—just something with a really good beat. If it has a good beat and a good tune, then I love it.

AB: This past season especially, it seems like everybody is talking about the next record to beat. How do you handle that?

MS: A couple of years ago I remember going into a race with a possibility of winning my eighth or ninth slalom in a row. People said Janica Kostelic had won eight and if I won this race then I would be the first to ever win that many in a row. I had no idea about this record and I really didn’t care. But as soon as people started talking about it, I got nervous and I straddled in this race. It was the first DNF in over four years.

I sort of vowed to find a way to not let those expectations bother me. It’s taken a long time and it won’t always be easy or perfect, but this season was pretty incredible because every single race there was a new record or a new statistic people were talking about… I do think once you get to a point where there’s so many records to talk about, it almost becomes numbing to hear it. I’m sort of like, “Oh that’s 50 [overall wins]. 50 what? Oh, that’s super cool. Next question.”

Breaking those records has not really ever been a driving force or part of my big motivation. My motivation has been to be the best in the world as long as I am skiing, to be able to win races, to be one of the best—kind of to do what I’m doing currently.

AB: You mentioned the word: best. What goes through your mind when you hear you’re on pace to be the GOAT?

MS: I want to be the best in the world, but I never thought about being the greatest of all time. To be the greatest of all time is obviously an enormous accomplishment, but I also feel like there’s multiple GOATs. On paper maybe not, but it’s always arguable. People will always argue Ingemar Stenmark is the greatest of all time no matter how many wins anybody else gets because he was so good in his generation. For the longest time, nobody ever came close. So now, somebody has come really close and I’m somewhere in the vicinity, you could say. To me I feel like if I were to break that record, I don’t know if I would even consider myself the greatest of all time. I’d just feel like while I was racing I was on top and that’s just where I was. 

AB: When your career comes to an end, what’s the biggest thing you hope to have accomplished?

MS: As far as ski racing goes, I would say if there was one thing I wanted to accomplish, maybe I already accomplished it, but I’m still here and I’m still motivated. I’m not in it for one particular achievement. In ski racing I would like to say I pushed the boundaries, pushed the limits and raised the sport to another level because of that. In life, if I can just leave the world having made whoever I came into contact with feel like maybe their lives just got a little bit better for the time that they knew me. That would be great.