Teenager Mikaela Shiffrin has nearly flawless form when she cruises through a slalom course.
Her secret? She pictures the gates as trees and keeps her elbows close because, “arms flying out will get taken off by a tree.”
And the 17-year-old almost always seems to be in perfect rhythm.
Her method? She hears drum beats as she swooshes along because, “going around the gates is like a song.”
Well, Shiffrin has certainly found her cadence on the course, racing to her first World Cup victory Thursday in Are, Sweden. She’s rapidly becoming skiing’s next big thing.
Just in time, too, for the United States, with Lindsey Vonn taking a break from the circuit to recover from a nagging virus that has zapped her strength.
Ever since Shiffrin burst on the scene, she’s drawn the inevitable comparisons to Vonn.
Not that Shiffrin minds, because she definitely has a lot in common with her idol. And now, above all else, this – winning.
At 17 years, 9 months, Shiffrin became the third-youngest American to win a World Cup race, behind Kiki Cutter (16 years, 7 months) and Judy Nagel (17 years, 5 months). Vonn didn’t win her first big-league event until 20.
The thrill felt precisely the way Shiffrin thought it would, too. After holding nothing back in her second run of a night slalom, Shiffrin quickly glanced at the clock. First place, by a slim margin.
She held her breath as Frida Hansdotter of Sweden careened down the course, unable to match her time.
Stunned, Shiffrin glanced around the crowd for the one person she wanted to see more than any other – her mom.
They’ve become a team within a team on the tour. Her mom follows along to the races, just to keep her from getting too homesick. Eileen Shiffrin also provides home-cooked meals from their base of operations – a rented apartment in Austria – and helps her daughter with homework.
“I kept seeing her across the fence and couldn’t get to her,” Mikaela Shiffrin said. “I finally saw her and I could release some of my emotions. Hearing her say, ‘Great job,’ and ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m so proud of you’ was just the best thing. That’s when I started to realize I had worked so hard for this, and she’s been here the whole time. This is wonderful.”
That new approach appears to be working out just fine for Shiffrin.
She no longer worries about being fast enough to earn a second run or frets about being able to keep up with the skiers she grew up idolizing.
All those thoughts used to cross her mind before she pushed out of the starting gate.
Now, there’s only this floating through her mind: She’s ready for success.
“I’ve been in this position a couple of times now and gave it away because I was thinking too much about today being my day,” said Shiffrin, who’s finishing up high school by taking online classes through Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. “I kept telling everybody I won’t win until I’m ready. I couldn’t tell you when that’s going to be, but I hoped it was soon.
“All of a sudden, I just felt ready. I guess that’s how I knew. There wasn’t one specific thing that happened. For some reason, I decided to put everything away and race like I’m never going to race again. It worked.”
Did it ever.
She’s come so close to winning before, taking third in a slalom race in Lienz, Austria, last December for her first podium finish.
A month ago in Levi, Finland, she broke through again, capturing third in another slalom event.
About then, something dawned on her. She was holding herself back. By letting go of expectations, she was able to ski faster – and freer.
“I know how to deal with nerves better,” said Shiffrin, who currently leads the World Cup slalom standings over Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany. “Any doubts I have, I just push them away and deal with the task at hand. I’m trying to keep it really simple.”
Simple may be the best way to describe her skiing as well. There’s no wasted movement as she navigates through a course.
She said that’s from skiing in the powder and over bumps back home in Vail, Colo., slipping through tight trails lined with trees.
“I would think of the trees as slalom gates, except you really don’t want to hit them,” she said. “You have to keep everything in and stable.”
And when she’s really on her game, it’s almost like she can hear a beat in her head.
“The gates hitting the ground – it’s like a song, when the drums go berserk,” she said. “That really helps me. It’s like, ‘OK, let’s try to pick up the pace here. The drum tempo is picking up.’ I can feel myself hitting the gates faster. I hear the tempo in my mind and all of a sudden I’m in the zone and can’t be distracted.”
Although Shiffrin primarily concentrates on the technical events, someday down the road she’d like to try the downhill and super-G. But that’s a conversation for a different time, once she gets her technique mastered.
“My main goal right now is to really dial in my slalom and giant slalom,” she said. “Under the pressure of racing, I need to bring out my best skiing. But I’m itching to go fast. I love speed.”
She’s not alone. The U.S. squad is experiencing quite a renaissance this season, with Leanne Smith, Stacey Cook and Marco Sullivan all earning podium spots, while veteran Steven Nyman won his first downhill race since 2006.
That certainly inspired Shiffrin.
“The U.S. Ski Team is on fire right now,” Shiffrin said. “They kind of stoked the fire, really started the fire, and I’m trying to keep it lit right now.”