Nearing the end of a season that would end with her coronation as the fifth American to win a World Cup overall title, Mikaela Shiffrin won an alpine combined race last February in the heart of the Swiss Alps. After three grueling months of racing in Europe, she had only two weekends left — a pair of races at Squaw Valley in northern California’s Sierra mountains, then two at the World Cup finals in Aspen.
The transatlantic air route from Switzerland to Squaw is about 5,600 miles, but that’s not the way Team Shiffrin went. They went the other direction to make a stop in South Korea so they could scope out the slopes and facilities where the PyeongChang Olympics will be held beginning this week. It was a calculated risk because it doubled their air miles back to the U.S., and Shiffrin looked exhausted by the time she got to Aspen, but now they get the payoff for their troubles.
Shiffrin, 22, is sure to be the most highlighted U.S. athlete in any sport at the PyeongChang Games, where at age 22 she can become the first American woman to win three medals in skiing at one Olympics and the first American of either gender to claim two gold medals since Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952. Her first race happens in U.S. prime-time television Feb. 11 in giant slalom.
Shiffrin and her mother, Eileen, who is one of her coaches, are glad they are already familiar with the setting where that drama will unfold.
“I 100 percent think it was valuable,” Shiffrin said in a recent interview with The Denver Post. “It’s as much about just getting the lay of the land, like driving from Seoul to the mountains, seeing how long that drive is. Even just going to Seoul, arriving there and seeing what everything looks like. Figuring out all of those things ahead of time is going to make it so much less stressful when we go.”
There were World Cup downhill and super-G races that weekend last year on the mountain where the Olympics will be held — Lindsey Vonn finished second in both — but Shiffrin didn’t race. The trip was strictly for reconnaissance and a little training, but it was typical of Team Shiffrin’s preparation.
“For all of us, it’s a confidence booster to alleviate some of the unknowns and feel like we have a little idea of the proximity of where we’re staying to the race hill and where the speed venue is with respect to the tech venue,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “It’s expensive, and I do think it was hard, having to go to Squaw right after that. She was exhausted, but I think it will pay off this year. It was a long trip for only a couple of days, but those are the things you have to do.”
In typical Mikaela Shiffrin fashion, she also has been preparing herself mentally for the glare of pressure and expectations at the Olympics. She will be heavily favored to win the slalom. She will be expected to claim medals in giant slalom and alpine combined (a downhill run plus two runs of slalom). If she chooses to race in the speed events (downhill and super-G), it would not be a shock for her to medal in one of those. She has raced four downhills this season and has been on the podium three times.
Falling short in one of the speed races wouldn’t be devastating because she is still new to those events, but expectations will be huge in the technical events.
“I have been thinking a lot about this,” Shiffrin said. “There is a reason oftentimes the favorites don’t perform at the Olympics and the underdogs win. Nobody is expecting anything of the underdogs and all of a sudden they have this brilliant performance, whereas the favorites are caving under the expectations.”
By her own admission, Shiffrin struggled with nerves last season en route to becoming the fifth American to win the World Cup overall. People around the tour were calling her “unbeatable,” and the weight of that sometimes made her physically ill before races. She knows expectations in PyeongChang will be even more intense, and occasionally she succumbs to thinking about that pressure, but she combats it by telling herself she’s already had a spectacular season.
“If your friend gives you $20 and then you lose $10, you feel like you’ve lost $10 but you’ve actually gained $10 from where you started,” Shiffrin said. “I’ve gained a ton this season. If I had the opportunity to win multiple medals and I walked away with nothing, it will be heartbreaking and disappointing, and I’ve put myself through that experience in my head already, but life goes on and I have a lot of other things to look forward to. If that disappoints fans or people who are watching the Olympics or America to the point where they are disgusted with me, then they should probably do something more important with their life.”
Shiffrin has been on a torrid pace this season, reaching the podium 15 times in 23 races with 10 wins. She has a huge lead in pursuit of her second World Cup overall.
“I’ve never felt this way with my skiing,” Shiffrin said. “I’ve never felt so incredibly happy to be racing, so trusting in myself and my team and our goals and our process. I’m in a good place mentally, so I’m able to handle the racing, I’m able to handle the media and the questions. It’s really exciting to have all these performances, but I also know it can’t go on forever.
“There’s going to be a day when there’s bad luck or I woke up on the wrong side of the bed or whatever. But to know that I’ve been able to get into the start every race, every run, and feel like I know what I have to do, I’m really excited to put my best skiing out there — or to try for it — it’s a really, really cool place to be.”
Mikaela Shiffrin will be a medal favorite in slalom, giant slalom and alpine combined at the PyeongChang Olympics, and she could contend in downhill and super-G. Here’s a look at Americans who won multiple medals in alpine events at one Olympics:
Bode Miller: Gold, silver and bronze, 2010
Andrea Mead Lawrence: Gold (2), 1952
Tommy Moe: Gold (2), 1994
Gretchen Fraser: Gold and silver, 1948
Lindsey Vonn: Gold and bronze, 2010
Penny Pitou: Silver (2), 1960
Julia Mancuso: Silver (2), 2010
Jean Saubert: Silver and bronze, 1964
Mikaela Shiffrin’s career firsts:
World Cup debut: March 11, 2011, age 15 (turned 16 two days later)
World Cup podium: Dec. 29, 2011, age 16 (in her eighth World Cup start, shares podium with childhood idol Marlies Schild of Austria)
World Cup win: Dec. 20, 2012, age 17 (first World Cup slalom win for a U.S. woman since Lindsey Vonn in 2009)
World championships medal: Feb. 16, 2013, age 17 (third-youngest slalom world champion ever)
World Cup season slalom title: March 16, 2013, age 18 (first U.S. World Cup slalom champion since 1984)
Olympic medal: Feb. 21, 2014, age 18 (youngest Olympic slalom champion ever)
World Cup giant slalom win: Oct. 25, 2014, age 19 (not just a slalom phenom anymore)
World championships medal in giant slalom: Feb. 16, 2017, age 21 (now a medal favorite in GS as well as slalom)
World Cup overall title: March 18, 2017, age 22 (becomes fifth American to win most prestigious title in skiing)
World Cup downhill podium: Dec.1, 2017, age 22 (finishes third in her third downhill start)
World Cup downhill win: Dec. 2, 2017, age 22 (racing downhill and super-G at Olympics now something to consider strongly)