For Mikaela Shiffrin, Tuesday was more than just another giant slalom race. Shiffrin’s win in Kronplatz, Italy, was the 83rd World Cup triumph of her career, giving her the most wins by a female skier in history.
Lindsey Vonn, another American star and a role model for Shiffrin — even though Vonn specialized in speed races and Shiffrin is a slalom specialist — had been the sport’s previous female standard-bearer with 82 World Cup wins. Shiffrin now needs just four more wins to break Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup wins, the most by a male or female skier.
For Shiffrin, 27, breaking the record in Tuesday’s giant slalom is the latest feat in a remarkable career that began when she was still in her early teens more than a decade ago. She burst onto the scene as a skiing prodigy, seemingly destined for greatness, the daughter of two competitive skiers who began perfecting her turns at the age of 8 under the lights on frigid New Hampshire nights at Storrs Hill — vertical drop 300 feet. A tiny hill, yes, but also an opportunity for plenty of runs and turns.
No one is destined for anything in Alpine skiing though. The sport has essentially a 100 percent injury rate, and nearly every racer at some point experiences a career-threatening crash. Shiffrin has miraculously managed to avoid that fate so far, making her path to Tuesday’s record-breaking run all the faster, and even more fitting.
She has been the youngest American skier to hit so many milestones in a career with just one major blemish — her inability to win a medal, or even complete most of her races, at the Beijing Olympics. She still won the overall World Cup title for 2022 and managed to win a downhill race just weeks after the mess in Beijing.
Her mother and coach, Eileen Shiffrin, said in an interview this month that the disappointment of Beijing set the stage for a period of personal growth last summer that would bear fruit for years.
“Those will be lifelong lessons,” she said.
The journey has been a whirlwind, and, by all accounts, most importantly Shiffrin’s, it still seems to have a long way to go. She brought in a new trainer and technician before this season, and whether she wins 83 more ski races or none, she has tried to find peace in the process.
After her 80th win, Shiffrin took a rare moment to reflect on the breadth of the accomplishment, telling her mother that while some people may think the winning comes easy, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Every single one of those wins took so much effort,” Eileen Shiffrin said her daughter told her. “You can’t believe how much effort it takes. I could easily not win another race.”
That seemed very unlikely, Shiffrin had already won 80 of her 230 starts, a 35 percent win rate across all five disciplines in a sport where top skiers can go years between victories.
The American skiing cognoscenti started hearing about Shiffrin before she hit her teens even though she raced far less than most juniors. She dazzled coaches at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, one of the country’s premier factories for Alpine talent, but she spent most Saturdays training rather than traveling for hours in a car for a race. Her father, Jeff, believed there was far more value in those extra hours on the snow than in collecting ribbons and medals that no one would soon care about.
By the time she made her World Cup debut at 15 in March 2011, Shiffrin appeared to possess a preternatural kind of balance that allowed her to transform a 60-turn slalom race into a kind of dance down an icy slope. The gates weren’t obstacles as much as they were opportunities for her to gain more speed.
A month later, she became America’s youngest ever national Alpine champion.
The First of 83
It was the rare occasion when Shiffrin missed her deadline, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.
Shiffrin got her first World Cup win in Are, Sweden, in December 2012, a come-from-behind win over Frida Hansdotter by 29-hundredths of a second. The win made her the youngest women’s World Cup winner since Lara Gut of Switzerland in 2008, and the second-youngest American to win a World Cup race. Judy Nagel, was three months younger than Shiffrin when she won a slalom race in 1969.
The two runs were not perfect, Shiffrin said at the time. A ski race never is. But they were both fast, and that was good enough.
When that first world championship arrived on a gray February afternoon in 2013, Shiffrin’s face betrayed something far closer to relief and exhaustion than jubilance. She didn’t jump or roll around in the snow or even raise her skis in the air in triumph. She closed her eyes, hugged another racer, began to walk a bit but soon settled onto one knee and rested her head against her skis.
“I was nervous up until I went out of the start,” she said when it was over. “But when I got in the start, I felt alive and ready to race.”
It was an early hint that Shiffrin, a world champion at 17 after staging another come-from-behind victory, was cut from a different cloth than most skiers. Shiffrin is the first one to admit to being a bit of a worrier. Sometimes she does word searches and other puzzles at the top of the mountain before races to settle her nerves. And when the victories come they serve as more of a release than anything, especially with the world wondering if the wunderkind who had been nicknamed the slalom princess could keep winning under the lights of a world championship.
Yes, she could.
The Youngest Alpine Gold Medalist
When it was over, the numbers suggested that it had not been close. Under the lights in Russia at Rosa Khutor, Shiffrin was more than a half-second ahead of Marlies Schild of Austria to win the Olympic slalom gold medal.
But there was that moment midway up the hill on the second run, the crazy fast left turn that sent her airborne, the landing on the back half of her right ski as she headed into the next turn. One split-second she was headed down, and by the next, she had somehow recovered, steadying herself as she blasted through the gate. A few gates later she was back to business, zigzagging her way to the finish.
“I’ve made that recovery in practice a hundred times, if not more,” Shiffrin said after the race. “So I said, ‘You know what to do — charge back into the course.’”
Winning on Home Snow
Winning a slalom title on home snow can be tougher than it looks.
When Shiffrin stepped into the starting hut at Beaver Creek for the 2015 world championships, it had been 18 years since a woman had won the slalom gold when her country was hosting the event, the biggest skiing meet other than the Olympics. In Shiffrin’s case, she was competing up the road from her home in the Colorado mountains. Vail-Beaver Creek is her home resort.
Just 19, she arrived in the first slump of her career, having lost three slalom races earlier in the season and struggling at times to make the podium. But she grabbed the lead in her first run, took a nap on the hill 30 minutes before her second, and though she started it slowly, she hammered the final stretch to win her second world championship.
Another, Different Olympic Gold
The Alpine skiing competition at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was a bit of a mess from the start. Frigid temperatures and high winds wreaked havoc with the schedule, and when officials finally determined the mountain was safe for competition, the women’s giant slalom and slalom races were scheduled for consecutive days.
Shiffrin came out firing in the giant slalom, winning the gold medal with fast and technically sound runs, becoming only the third American to win multiple Alpine Olympic gold medals. Winning a gold medal though, can make for a long day of interviews, ceremonies and celebrations. By the time Shiffrin got to sleep it was past her 9 p.m. bedtime, and the slalom competition was set for the next morning.
Nerves caused her to throw up ahead of the race, and by the time it was over she was fourth in her signature event. She called the result “a very big disappointment,” but returned to win the silver medal in the combined event.
Little did she know what kind of disappointment awaited her at her next Olympics.
So Many Races, So Many Falls
Shiffrin arrived in Beijing for the 2022 Olympics favored to win multiple medals in a career that had produced two golds and a silver, the next step in her quest to become the most decorated skier ever to compete on the international stage. Instead, her journey became a stare into an abyss: two DNFs (did not finish) in giant slalom and slalom, followed by ninth- and 18th-place finishes in super-G and downhill, and then one last DNF in combined.
The demise had plenty of possible causes. A case of Covid-19 and 10 days of isolation earlier in the winter, a sore back the previous November that cost her valuable practice, even the sudden death of her father, in an accident at the family home in Colorado in 2020.
“Right now I just feel like a joke,” Shiffrin said after the final fall.
Winning the overall title a few weeks later provided a bit of a salve, but not much more.
Her mother described the Beijing Olympics as “devastating and shocking,” an experience that will “hurt forever,” but there was a silver lining.
“Had she come away with some medals she probably wouldn’t have sought out the self-improvement that she did over the summer,” she said.
In Hot Pursuit
As the 2022-23 season dawned, overtaking Vonn seemed like it might be a stretch.
Shiffrin needed eight wins to tie and nine to surpass Vonn, who had retired in 2019. She had not recorded double-digit victory totals in a single season in three years. Granted, Covid-19 had canceled races and screwed up the schedule for several years, but Shiffrin’s lock on the sport was no longer certain.
Paul Kristofic, the U.S. women’s coach the past eight years, said Shiffrin spent a healthy chunk of the off-season testing new equipment that would ensure she had the proper ski for every type of hill and snow condition. There was little discussion about winning more races than any other female skier.
“We don’t really talk about these milestone records,” Kristofic said in an interview. “We’re really focused week to week and venue to venue. Our work is in the moment.”
Then came Levi, Finland, where the season opened in November. Shiffrin won back-to-back slalom races, the 75th and 76th wins of her career. Vonn’s record suddenly seemed a lot closer.
“I try to let the pressure go but it’s always there,” she said. Later she added, “When you win then it actually only gets harder.”
Win No. 77 came in St. Moritz on Dec. 18 in super-G, Shiffrin’s favorite of the speed events. Super-G is all about flow and long but precise turns. When Shiffrin finds her line, she can stay on it as well as anyone. There are few things on a ski mountain she loves more, especially in one of the sport’s heralded destinations.
“When there is sun you can’t beat it here,” she said on a day no one could beat her.
Then Shiffrin got seriously hot, reeling off three consecutive victories in Semmering, Austria, two in giant slalom and one in slalom to reach 80 wins.
“Well, that was a pretty insane evening,” she said after the last of the victories. She had shared the podium for the first time with her longtime teammate and friend Paula Moltzan, who finished second. Shiffrin said they could not stop giggling as they sang the national anthem during the victory ceremony.
A slalom win in warm and slushy Croatia made it five in a row.
“I had so much fun, I skied so well,” she said. “Right now I feel like I’m just riding a wave and I’m going to ride it until it’s over.”
Shiffrin collected No. 82, tying Vonn, on Sunday in a giant slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
“Speechless!!” her boyfriend, the Norwegian skiing champion Aleksander Aamodt Kilde wrote on Twitter.
And then there was only one thing left to do — win again.