Five days after her 22nd birthday, the EagleVail phenom became the youngest to win the World Cup overall title since 2003, finishing second in a slalom in front of a jubilant crowd waving American flags and posters bearing her name. She actually ...
ASPEN — One of the greatest moments in the history of American ski racing felt a little anticlimactic Saturday afternoon, but the magnitude of Mikaela Shiffrin’s achievement made up for what it lacked in suspense.
Five days after her 22nd birthday, the EagleVail phenom became the youngest to win the World Cup overall title since 2003, finishing second in a slalom in front of a jubilant crowd waving American flags and posters bearing her name. She actually clinched the title Friday while napping, though, when Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia decided not to enter Saturday’s race. Stuhec had been the only racer with a mathematical chance of catching Shiffrin, slim though it was.
“My mom walked into my room, I had just woken up from a nap, and she said, ‘Oh, congratulations, the overall is yours,’ ” Shiffrin said. “I said, ‘No, not yet.’ That’s what I’ve been saying, ‘It’s not mine yet.’ She said, ‘No, Ilka decided not to ski the slalom, so it’s yours.’ It didn’t seem like a real thing. It’s odd to say I won something in ski racing when I wasn’t actually out on the hill, so it feels a little more real today.”
Claiming the famous crystal globe that goes to the overall winner has been Shiffrin’s dream since she was 5 years old. The overall, not Olympic medals, became her foremost goal.
“It means a lot to me,” Shiffrin said. “I can only say that because it’s been a dream since I was so young, but I can’t tell you how I actually feel about it right now. It’s really hard to put those feelings into words.”
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Tamara McKinney, the first American woman to win the overall, in 1983, traveled here from her home in Squaw Valley, Calif., to watch Shiffrin become the fifth American to win it on a picture-perfect bluebird day.
“She’s been phenomenal,” McKinney said. “To be the World Cup overall winner means not only is she able to handle the pressure on one day but over the grind for 40 races, all the different continents. I think It will be fantastic for American skiing to inspire young junior racers.”
Anna Perret-Gentil and her 4-year-old son, Remi, traveled from Denver to meet Shiffrin. Remi held a sign that said, “MIKEALA will you go up the chair (lift) with me.” He didn’t get to share a lift ride with her, but she did autograph his sign. Seventeen young racers from the Cloud City Ski Club, which trains at Ski Cooper near Leadville, also came to cheer her on. Most of them wore red, white and blue beanies with her name on them.
“I look up to her as a role model,” said Lily Redden, 15. “She’s a great skier. I’ve actually done multiple role-model speeches on her. She’s just a really nice person and she’s a really good skier.”
On record pace
Ski racing traditionally has been dominated by Europeans, which makes the current era all the more remarkable for Americans because of two Colorado women who live less than 10 miles apart in the Vail Valley. Lindsey Vonn has a women’s record 77 World Cup victories. Shiffrin is on a pace to shatter Vonn’s records with 31 already. Vonn, 32, had only four wins when she was Shiffrin’s age.
“I’ve never seen such a performance before. It’s amazing,” said retired Austrian star Alexandra Meissnitzer. “Lindsey Vonn, she’s such a great skier, and I have so much respect. But Mikaela, she started winning even earlier. I’m a really big fan of her precise technique. She’s just started, that probably scares everyone else on the World Cup, because they know if she’s not making big mistakes there is almost no chance to beat her.”
At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion at age 18. She won slalom gold at the past three world championships and added silver in giant slalom at this year’s world championships. But the ski world accords even more prestige to World Cup overall titles because they show who was the best skier across an entire season in multiple disciplines.
“To be the best over the whole season is something that a ski racer is appreciating much more,” said retired Swedish star Pernilla Wiberg. “And in the ski community, all around the world, she will always be looked at as one of the greatest skiers that has been. It’s impressive to see at such a young age.”
Shiffrin emerged as a prodigy when she debuted on the World Cup circuit six years ago, two days before her 16th birthday. She captured her first World Cup victory at 17 and won the first of her four season slalom titles later that season.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver PostPetra Vlhova, of Slovakia, center, celebrates winning the ladies World Cup Slalom race at the 2017 Audi FIS Ski World Cup Finals on Aspen Mountain on March 18, 2017 in Aspen. Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, left, took second and Frida Hansdotter, of Sweden, right, took third.Experts on ski technique have long been in awe of her form because she always seems to have a perfectly “quiet” upper body with all of her motion coming below the waist, swinging like a metronome. Learning to ski the trees in Vail when she was little helped her develop that form because a skier in the trees can’t afford to have arms flying around in tight spaces. She also credits Kirk Dwyer, her coach at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, where she went to high school, for helping develop her form.
“With greater efficiency you have greater speed,” said Dwyer, who became executive director at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail last year. “At the foundation it’s working to master your technique and to master your tactics. You have less risk of injury and you can take more runs. If you’re training more efficiently, you can ski higher volume. If you ski higher volume, you get more repetition.”
Team Shiffrin talks a lot about “mastery.” Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, became fascinated by the topic after reading an article in Scientific American about grand masters in chess. What he learned figured into the way his daughter was coached when she was growing up.
“It takes 1,000 hours, give or take — depending on who your mentor is, how willing you are to focus on the effort — to go from incompetent to competent in anything, from speaking a language to being able to make an arc turn on skis,” Jeff said. “It takes 5,000 hours of dedicated, ‘I’m not good enough, I want to improve’ training to get to masterful at it. And it takes 10,000 to 20,000 hours to get to be the best in world — grand master, Olympic gold medal.”
With that notion in mind, Shiffrin raced a lot less than kids her age but trained a lot more. She developed a style where she’s almost always in sync with no wasted motion.
“Austrians are really big ski fans and they like to watch her, because it’s beautiful,” Meissnitzer said. “It’s really elegant the way she skis.”
Shiffrin is sweet and genuine off the slopes, respectful and solicitous of others. But when she races, watch out.
“She is a vicious competitor,” said longtime Aspen resident Bob Beattie, who created the U.S. Ski Team in the early 1960s. “She doesn’t act like it, but she is. She knows how to get into the turns fast and get out of the turns fast. That’s the key to her skiing, and that’s what she does so well. It looks like she’s in slow motion sometimes.”
Aspen native Bill Marolt, who raced for Beattie at the 1964 Olympics, was president and chief executive of U.S. Skiing from 1996-2014. He is in awe of what Shiffrin has been able to achieve.
“For somebody that’s 22 to win a World Cup overall says a lot of things, but mainly what it says is that she is a phenom,” Marolt said. “On top of that, what’s so amazing is that she has such an air, a sense of confidence, a sense of who she is. She fulfills the job description in every possible way. It’s just so much fun to watch somebody that good.”
If Shiffrin remains healthy and motivated, she could become the greatest ski racer in history. Meissnitzer sees her “breaking every record.”
She seemed a little disappointed with her race Saturday, though. Petra Vlhova of Slovakia won, 0.24 of a second ahead of Shiffrin.
“I really wanted to put on a show,” Shiffrin said. “For sure I wanted to win, but I also think that was just as good as a show out there today with Petra taking the lead at the very final split. That’s what it takes to have a show in ski racing. It’s really cool for her and it was cool for me. The crowd was cheering for me, but they were cheering for her too.”
Since the inception of the World Cup ski tour in 1967, five Americans have won the “overall” season title that goes to the racer who scores the most points across all five of the alpine disciplines (slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super-G and combined):
Year, victories that season
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