The New Speed Queen
Lyme’s Shiffrin Turning Heads in World Cup
Mikaela Shiffrin speeds down the course during the women's World Cup slalom ski race in Aspen, Colo. (Associated Press - Nathan Bilow)
Former Lyme resident Mikaela Shiffrin reacts in the finish arena after placing seventh at the women’s World Cup slalom in Aspen, Colo. (Associated Press - Nathan Bilow)
This is what teenager Mikaela Shiffrin enjoys about skiing: Going fast, goofing around with friends on the slopes and grabbing quick sips of hot chocolate between runs on cold days.
What the 17-year-old skier and former Lyme, N.H., resident doesn’t really relish — not yet anyway — is the spotlight.
Lately, that glare has been pretty intense, especially after she earned her second career podium finish two weeks ago in just her 12th World Cup slalom start. She followed that over the weekend in Aspen, Colo., by posting a pair of top-10s — ninth in Saturday’s giant slalom and seventh in yesterday’s slalom — to move to fifth place in the FIS World Cup overall and slalom standings just weeks into her second campaign at skiing’s top level.
Now, it seems that everyone wants some of Shiffrin’s time. That’s natural, because she’s drawing frequent comparisons to her idol, Lindsey Vonn.
Success has come a lot quicker than the one-time Ford Sayre Ski Council competitor imagined — and proven more difficult to deal with, too.
“It’s really flattering, but it’s also that much harder to stay focused at the job at hand,” Shiffrin wrote in an email after a training session last week. “Getting two podiums has already brought me a crazy amount of attention that I didn’t expect. All the attention — media, interest from sponsors, invitations to appearances, etc. — became exhausting last year with my first podium.
“Now with two podiums, especially since it’s the start of the season, the hype is really building again, even more so than last time.”
Shiffrin didn’t race against Vonn in Aspen yesterday. The four-time overall champion opted to bypass the action in Colorado as she recovers from an intestinal issue that landed her in the hospital for a few days last week.
Vonn or no Vonn, Shiffrin simply can’t escape the comparisons to her American counterpart. She actually considers it quite flattering, because they definitely do have a lot in common.
“I actually model myself after her a little bit in that I figured out a long time ago that I work best when I am focused, and she seems to go about training and racing the same way,” Shiffrin said. “We both are passionate about skiing — love going fast.”
Now if only she could borrow a page from Vonn on handling the pressures that go along with success.
“She has experience with all those big events like the ESPYs and walking the red carpet; she’s been in several big U.S. tabloids,” Shiffrin said. “I feel like such a small-town girl compared to that.”
She’s still quite enamored with the likes of Vonn and Julia Mancuso because they’re the skiers she grew up revering.
“I can’t picture the awe factor ever going away,” Shiffrin said.
There has been no awkwardness on the slopes for Shiffrin. She made an almost seamless transition from the Nor-Am circuit — skiing’s equivalent of the minors — to World Cup skiing last season. She took third in a slalom race in Lienz, Austria, last December for her first podium finish and was voted rookie of the year by her peers. That put the world on notice — this kid’s for real.
And then two weeks ago in Levi, Finland, she finished third again, just a fraction of a second behind winner Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.
“I think I’m getting closer, but I can’t let my mind go there,” said Shiffrin, who takes online classes through Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy. “I just need to ski my best and see how it turns out.”
She has family around to help lessen the pressure. Last season, Shiffrin was accompanied through Europe by her mom, while her father, a former racer at Dartmouth, handled all the logistics.
Again this season, her mom will follow along, just to keep her from getting too homesick. Eileen Shiffrin also provides home-cooked meals from her rented apartment in Austria and helps her daughter with homework.
“I really try to hit (school) hard in the spring, summer and fall, then I do as much as I can in the winter, but it falls off for sure,” said the younger Shiffrin. “I would like to go to college, but don’t know when that will be.”
She’d also like to try out speed events down the road. Her coaches want her to perfect the technical events before adding the downhill and super-G to her repertoire.
Once she does that, Shiffrin should be an overall title contender. Only she’s not thinking along those lines quite yet.
“I love going fast, so I am looking forward to jumping into it when the time comes,” she said.
The quicker Shiffrin flies down the slopes, the faster she sheds the trappings of youth.
“This year has been better as far as knowing what to expect,” Shiffrin said. “The flurry of media interest has been manageable since I have people running defense for me this time around who see to it that (I) have the time and energy I need to keep prepping for Aspen and the rest of the season.
“It’s been quite amazing. My dreams are starting to come true and that feels probably 100 times better I ever imagined.”