Meet Our Local Slalom Superstar

We take a look back at our first encounter with Mikaela Shiffrin, the girl next door who just might be the world's best skier. Ever.

By Kelly Bastone November 1, 2013 Published in the Holiday 2013/2014 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Gate-crashing the women’s slalom at the 2013 US Alpine Championships in Squaw Valley

"Give me some attitude,” photographer Brent Bingham says as Mikaela Shiffrin smiles for his camera. Standing barefoot in his garage-cum-studio in Edwards, skiing’s 18-year-old phenom moves blithely through the classic cover-girl poses, twisting toward the lens to cast a coy glance over her shoulder, then squaring off with fists on hips. Born in Vail, Shiffrin runs slalom gates faster than any other woman in the world (Lindsey Vonn included), but attitude—the sneering, glaring defiance that many teens muster freely—isn’t her forte.

Her onlookers are riveted regardless. Like Christie Brinkley, Shiffrin smiles as if today were a prize and tomorrow were sure to hold yet another. And what’s not to smile about? Last winter Shiffrin claimed the World Cup slalom title, becoming one of the youngest racers ever to win the crystal globe. Having risen to supremacy with improbable speed, she’s expected to medal in her first Olympic Winter Games at Sochi. She’s been called the next Lindsey Vonn—who, at 29, is America’s winningest female skier.

The comparison is far from direct: Vonn excels at all four events, whereas Shiffrin is a slalom specialist. On the other hand, Vonn was 23 by the time she started notching world wins. Shiffrin’s five-year head start puts her on track to surpass Vonn’s tally over the span of her career. And unlike Vonn, Shiffrin hasn’t suffered injury, heartbreak, or any of fortune’s other cruel blows. She’s 100 percent pure potential, skiing’s Next Big Thing.

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Eileen Shiffrin (left of Mikaela) serves as hairdresser during a photo shoot in the Edwards studio of photographer Brent Bingham

That, along with her beauty, transfixes the small crowd of about twenty bystanders that’s gathered behind Bingham’s light stands and reflectors to witness the launch of a superstar. Stylist Katherine Schmidt and makeup artist Dawn Randall swoop into the shot periodically to fret over Shiffrin’s neckline or pin her blonde locks, while Rick Jaffe, Picabo Street, and the rest of Fox Sports’ posse look on, too captivated by the debutante to glance down at their smartphones.

Her omnipresent mother, Eileen, cues the next costume change. “This is a very revealing dress,” cautions the teen, who returns modeling a virginal white frock with sheer lace panels along the torso and a knee-length hem. She twirls it to reveal her calves, but it’s not enough to appease Bingham. “We want to see your legs—sort of muscular, you know,” he explains.

“What was your favorite thing about being on Letterman?” someone asks Shiffrin, who appeared on the show in March. “Trying on the dresses!” she replies. “And getting a pedicure. I’d never had one before the show, and the woman who did mine was appalled by my feet. ‘What have you been doing?’ she asked me,” Shiffrin relates with a laugh.

Street commiserates. “I never even bothered to try to make my feet look nice until after I was done racing,” says the Olympic and World Championship medalist, who traveled to Vail to interview the up-and-coming Shiffrin.

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Helmet signing after the 2011 Aspen Winternational

But if girliness and skiing are generally at odds, those warring factions have called a temporary truce during Shiffrin’s final sequence, for which she wears a ruby-red gown. “Get your skis,” Street suggests after watching yet another series of fashion-plate shots. “It’ll create an instant connection between your femininity and your sport in a way that you won’t allow to happen out there on the hill.”

Shiffrin obliges, returning to the set with a pair of ridiculously stiff Atomic skis and standing as she does on the winner’s podium, hands gripping the tools of her trade while the photographer’s flashes explode like applause. “Keep having fun with it, OK?” Street says, giving Shiffrin a farewell hug. The youngster hasn’t known anything else.

Fun, if you ask Shiffrin to define it, is what happens when you get good at something. Amusements are a separate class of good times. Zipping around in a sports car (such as the Audi RS5 she got to drive for a few weeks after winning a drawing at a postrace party) or laughing your head off at actress Jennifer Lawrence (whom Shiffrin idolizes as a jokester)—these are entertainments that she, like most teenagers, can appreciate. But for her, true fun comes from mastery, and nothing less.

“I always believe that if you do something well, then it’s fun,” she tells me later that day as we drive my (decidedly less sporty) Subaru Impreza to Piney Lake for yet another photo shoot. “I play tennis and I used to play soccer, and I windsurf a little bit, and it’s just whatever I do, I try to do it the best I can,” she explains. “It’s really gratifying, knowing that I went out one day and improved, and the next day I got even better. I’m always getting faster, and it’s really exciting because it shows that there’s always someplace to go, there’s always a point beyond where you are, and you can always get there.”

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Conquering the high ropes course at the US Ski Team’s 2011 Rookie Camp

Vail proved to be the ideal starting line. Born at Vail Valley Medical Center in 1995, Shiffrin learned to ski in her driveway, where her parents showed her what she needed to know to navigate Vail’s Back Bowls. Her father, Jeff, an anesthesiologist, once skied for Dartmouth College; Eileen, a nurse, raced in high school and as an adult in Masters events. The family kitchen was where Shiffrin and her older brother, Taylor (also a ski racer, for the University of Denver team), would re-create slalom turns for their parents to critique, and even now, Eileen is often the first to spot flaws in her daughter’s technique and deliver the coaching tips she craves. The pair analyzes videos together and identifies aspects of Shiffrin’s performance that need improvement. “She’s a really good skier, so she can help me figure out things with my skiing,” she explains of her mom.

When Shiffrin was 8 years old, two years after she’d started racing, the family moved to New Hampshire so her father could practice anesthesiology at Dartmouth Hospital. She excelled at East Coast skiing just as she had in the Rockies, so at 13, when the rest of the family moved back to Vail, Shiffrin enrolled at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. A boarding school with a rigorous ski-racing program, Burke Mountain has educated the likes of Diann Roffe and Erik Schlopy and claims a total of twenty-nine Olympians. Shiffrin’s performance at Sochi—and yes, barring injury she will be going to Sochi—will bring that number to thirty.

“For her age, she’s the best I’ve worked with,” says Burke Mountain Headmaster Kirk Dwyer, who has coached hundreds of racers, including many of the Olympians the school has produced. He says he’s seen youngsters with more natural ability, but none have been willing to devote themselves to technique to the extent that Shiffrin does. “Most skiers, even the best, get a little complacent,” he says. “Mikaela doesn’t want to hear flattery. She wants to know how she can improve.”

Shiffrin, meanwhile, credits Dwyer for teaching her how to enjoy the less glamorous aspects of ski training. “He really ingrained it in me that I needed to work on my fundamentals and I needed to love the drills and love the excruciating pain of taking 45 minutes to go down one run because I’m practicing one thing so in-depth,” she explains.

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Her drive to hone the subtlest details makes Shiffrin wise beyond her years. Whereas most teens (and adults as well) might much prefer the adrenaline-steeped thrills of racing to rote practice on the home hill, Shiffrin loves to practice. She obsesses over turns with the assiduousness of a bespectacled master spending months laboring over the production of one bamboo fly rod. And in fact, Shiffrin considers skiing to be more of a craft than a sport. “It keeps me calm,” she says. “It’s something that I like to study. I like to fully immerse myself in it, so that I’m dreaming it, and even in the off season I’m dreaming about skiing and trying to make it as good as it can possibly be.” When she’s not laying tracks in snow, she watches videos of her performance.

Her meticulous approach to training may seem unusually mature for a teen, but her impatience with achievement is completely age-appropriate. “I have always wanted to improve as fast as I can and to get where I’m going as fast as I can,” she says. Instead of assuming she’d mimic the racing timeline that Vonn and other athletes have established—which maps out World Cup and Olympic wins as twentysomethings, not as teens—Shiffrin told her parents and coaches that she wanted to put the program on fast forward. “I don’t think it’s necessary to say that in ten years I could win a title,” she says. “I think that you limit yourself when you say that in ten years, or however long you want your career to be, you will finally have done all this stuff. I think it’s better to say that you’re going to do it now.”

So Shiffrin wasted little time at Burke Mountain. In 2010, she won gold medals at the Trofeo Topolino in Italy (Shiffrin’s first European competition) and the Whistler Cup in British Columbia, events that attract some of the world’s top youth. The next year, she won bronze at the world junior championships, notched her first two World Cup starts, and won the US slalom title.

And she makes it look easy. Shiffrin’s grace matches her speed, thanks to a quiet upper body that floats, relaxed, over legs that wrap fluidly around the slalom gates. “I’m pretty balanced, and I don’t push myself so far out of my comfort zone that I’m going wild,” she says. That explains why she has yet to suffer any major wrecks. Sure, she’s fallen. But none of her accidents has rattled her confidence or left her seriously injured. Unlike the immoderate Vonn, who redlines every run (even the sketchy one at Schladming, Austria, where she detonated her knee last winter), Shiffrin stays calm, calculated, correct.

Even her biggest blowup, in a New England terrain park, ended up being a relatively minor setback. Skiing with five teenage boys, Shiffrin decided she’d show them how to go big, Vail-style. “I had a crush on every single one of the guys, and I wanted to show off,” she explains. “I took three jumps in a row, and the last one I went off the bigger lip and I just overshot the landing by a very big amount,” she recalls. At the time, she thought she’d broken both legs and shattered her elbows. But the final tally was one concussion and a broken arm.

These days, she stays away from the park and focuses instead on making slalom turns. “I know when I’ve made a good turn,” she says. “There’s just the perfect amount of energy, and your skis are working with you in unison, and everything just works—and that is a really amazing feeling.” So far, the technical specialist hasn’t branched out into the speed events, such as downhill (Lindsey Vonn’s favorite). But Shiffrin will need to borrow a page from Vonn’s playbook if she wants to ace Sochi’s slalom course, which includes flatter sections at the top and bottom. “It’s definitely going to favor the girls who know how to ride a flat ski, know how to produce speed when it’s flat and straight, so that’s something I’ll have to kind of work on to make sure I don’t lose a ton of time there,” Shiffrin says.

She’s hardly worried. Improving her technique provides a sense of accomplishment that Shiffrin savors almost as much as her podium time. That thirst for perfection, not just for the pride of winning, may keep this newcomer in the game long after other racers have burned out. Whereas some veterans lose their hunger after they’ve tasted a few wins, Shiffrin could keep her zest for competition—and training—well into her career.

She could become the best. Ever.

At 18, Shiffrin has enjoyed the kind of success that most adults only dream of. She’s bantered with David Letterman on national TV. In Europe, where ski racing is so popular that competitors are hounded by paparazzi intent on capturing a photo or an autograph, Shiffrin is recognized everywhere she goes. Sochi may make her a household name in her own, football-obsessed nation. But success, and its pursuit, haven’t come without costs.

After she graduated from Burke Mountain this spring, Shiffrin hardly got to enjoy a lazy summer of cruising the boulevards with her friends. Instead of goofing off and dodging adults’ watchful eyes, she electronically logs her location changes with skiing’s drug testing board, which monitors competitors’ every move. (She checked in as we started our drive to Piney Lake, making sure she stayed within her sport’s surveillance regulations.)

And at a time when most kids are itching for freedom from their families, Shiffrin wishes she could be a homebody. As a boarding school student, she spent just a few weeks a year at her Eagle-Vail home, where the Shiffrin family rarely gathers—not with her father working in Denver, her brother at university, and her mom escorting her to races. That competition circuit keeps her on the road for five months every winter; she devoted much of her summer to skiing and training in New Zealand.

Since her Burke Mountain friends have gone their separate ways, Shiffrin enjoys no BFF time (though she always wears the blue, Nantucket-made pendant a schoolmate gave her). “A lot of my friends that I used to ski with kind of stopped skiing and went to normal public high schools, and they’re all doing really cool things, but it’s like normal really cool things,” she says. “It’s totally different than having a full-time job as a ski racer traveling around in Europe.” Seeing their posts on Facebook clues her in to what she’s missed out on by becoming a ski racer. But she’s never wished for anything different. “They’re having fun in their own way, and I’m doing what I do,” she attests, “and I wouldn’t really trade it for the world.”

Having a boyfriend is also at odds with her rolling-stone lifestyle. She’s dated fellow ski team member Brennan Rubie (a 22-year-old racer from Salt Lake City), but neither has much time for romance. “We’ve been talking for a while, just keeping in touch, and lately it’s kind of moved forward, but we don’t see each other that much,” she says. “It would be nice to have more time to spend with him, but that’s not my path, and my priority isn’t really him, and his priority isn’t me. Our priorities are skiing.”

The one hallmark of normal life that Shiffrin won’t let skiing displace is her connection to her parents. Both have played key roles in her development as a racer, with her dad helping her establish deadlines for her racing goals and her mom accompanying her on the competition circuit, even spotting her daughter on weights at the gym. Together, mother and daughter puzzle over directions to the next racecourse or cocoon in European hotels. Eileen locates laundry facilities and figures out speedy ways to wash Mikaela’s ski clothes in countries where line-drying (rather than electric dryers) is the norm, and she cooks her daughter’s favorite pasta dishes to replenish the 2,000 calories she burns during training on a typical day (the equivalent of four McDonald’s Big Macs).

And although some of Shiffrin’s coaches have regarded Eileen’s participation as an intrusion, it’s one that her daughter won’t live without. “I think it’s hard for people to grasp that I want my mom around,” she says. “People are always like, ‘You should get away from your mom because she’s pushing you too hard,’ or whatever.”

But Shiffrin insists that it’s her own quest for excellence—not her parents’—that drives her. And she feels no need to negotiate life in the big leagues on her own. “All of the top racers do travel with one of their parents, or spouse, and do have somebody with them,” Shiffrin says. For her, it’s Mom. “She’s the one consistent thing in my life right now,” she explains, “and I think it’s really important to keep some sort of consistency.”

If things go as planned at Sochi, she will probably rely on her mom to help sort through the tough decisions she’ll face as a national sports icon, such as: Will she position herself as a sex symbol? Her teammate Julia Mancuso has posed nude (for ESPN The Magazine) and nearly nude (in ads for Lange’s ski boots). In fact, male and female athletes are increasingly expected to strip for the camera: NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and NBA players Kenneth Faried and John Wall all got naked for ESPN’s annual flesh fest, The Body Issue. Even the laughably nonsexy sport of curling exposed some skin when one if its star athletes, Madeleine Dupont, posed topless for a calendar.

Pride in the body you’ve built is something Shiffrin understands. “To a certain extent, you want to work out in your sports bra because you want to show off your six-pack,” she admits. She doesn’t fault others for succumbing to pop culture’s pressure to show all. But she does feel the images are degrading to women especially, and for herself, Shiffrin aspires to something more “classy,” explaining, “I would much rather have my clothes on and just have people see that I’m really fit.”

Espousing family values like those, Shiffrin relishes being a role model to the younger female athletes who follow in her footsteps. She’s already a hero to thousands of girls who aspire to be like her; for boys, she’s a heartthrob. Both camps adore her. At Vail’s “Celebration of Champions” event at Mountain Plaza in March, Shiffrin joined Lindsey Vonn in an autograph signing at which hundreds clamored to meet the up-and-comer (including one unabashedly smitten teenage boy who held up a hand-lettered cardboard poster, pleading,“MIKAELA: LET ME BE YOUR TIGER!”).
“I want to create a stir,” Shiffrin admits. “I want to reach my dreams and inspire the younger athletes to do the same. I’m trying to connect with them so they can see: I’m 18 years old, I’m a goofball, and it just takes a lot of hard work—but it’s also really fun.”

The Gore Range glows golden behind Piney Lake, the backdrop for Shiffrin’s sunset photo shoot. After her half-day workout and a few hours of German study (at the time, the teen still had to complete one last academic course credit before she could officially claim her high school diploma), the marathon of photo sessions started, first in Edwards and now at Piney.

The bumpy, hourlong ride into the mountains over a horribly rutted and corkscrewing dirt road had left the skier queasy, but she hides all traces of carsickness as she hops onto a log and poses in front of the peaks that produced her. Street and the Fox Sports crew have departed to board planes back to Los Angeles, leaving only a handful of Vail locals (and a reporter and photographer from the Denver Post who crashed the shoot) to admire how Shiffrin’s blond hair tumbles in shimmering waves over her brown leather jacket.

“She’s so pretty!” coos Lena Sauter, an 11-year-old ski racer whose family just relocated from Vermont to enroll her at Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy, where she hopes to raise her skiing to the next level—to Shiffrin’s level, in fact. “I’ve read a couple articles about her, and she’s always saying that her goals are within reach, they’re not unattainable,” says the starstruck fan, who coaxed her mother to drive her to Piney Lake just to glimpse her idol.

Noticing Sauter and her friend, Shiffrin waves at the girls during a lull in the shooting, then sets off a peal of giggles by transforming her cover-girl face into a clownish grimace.

“I want to be an Olympian,” Sauter declares. “I want to be like Mikaela.”

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