Rising star Mikaela Shiffrin on Ski Team hazing, standing on the podium at age 16, East Coast nostalgia, and learning to lean back a little.
She raced in her first World Cup at 15, took a podium at age 16, ranked 17th in slalom at age 17, and just snagged her first win on Dec. 20, in the Are, Sweden, slalom. Lindsey Vonn should probably be thankful that Shiffrin isn’t a downhiller. Yet.
SKI › You’re just 17, and have yet to finish high school. What’s it like juggling a World Cup racing career with schoolwork?
MS › “I’m officially a (high school) senior now, as of two days ago when I finished my online course in chemistry, which was ridiculously hard and I had to go like 10 chapters further than any of my classmates did, so I’m glad to be out of it. I shouldn’t complain because it made me smarter, but it was frustrating trying to do a New Zealand camp and conditioning camp in Park City and schoolwork at the same time. If I wasn’t skiing or working out, I was home doing chemistry. My mom was my study partner. She was doing it with me. It’s two jobs: school and skiing. It’s like two fulltime jobs. Actually it’s going really well now that I’m finished with chemistry, but that’s what my education is like right now. Meanwhile, I’m becoming more aware and worldly through ski racing.”
SKI › So being so young, your U.S. Ski Team mates probably went easy on the hazing rituals, right?
MS › “My first camp with all my teammates was in New Zealand. Resi (Stiegler) and Sarah were joking about it, like, ‘We need to shave your eyebrows or something.’ But then they’d be like, ‘Don’t worry, Mikaela, we don’t have the energy.’ And now I’m not a rookie anymore so I’m home free. This year I went bungee jumping with Julia (Mancuso) and our physio. They made me. They said it was team bonding and rookie initiation and ‘afternoon adventure.’ I did a tandem with Julia. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”
SKI › At age 16, you opened the season with an eighth in slalom at Aspen. Then you were third at Lienz, Austria, which as it happened, was your new friend Schleper’s final race.
MS › “That was the best retirement race in, like, history. Sarah wore a dress and skied with (3-year-old son) Lasse down the course, and her time was 10 minutes or something. But it wasn’t just all about her. Only for one run. Then she went right back to being a supportive teammate, which shows what a special person she is. At the end of the day, my third place was like, whatever. It was her support that was the best thing.”
SKI › You spent your early childhood at Vail, where you live now, but lived your formative years back East, training at Dartmouth Skiway, Burke Mountain and—is it true?— tiny Storrs Hill in Lebanon, N.H.?
MS › “Every single weeknight after school, mom would pick up my brother (Taylor) and me and we’d go over to Storrs to train. We’d do our homework in the car and have, like, Spaghettios for dinner, and ski from 7 to 9. It’s only big enough for about 20 slalom gates, but it was just about the repetition. And I really got used to skiing on ice.”
SKI › We’ve heard you prefer training gates to freeskiing. So the East was a good fit for that?
MS › “I love skiing in the East. Most people are like, ‘No way,’ but I love the East because everything is smaller and closer together, and I really miss it and hope to get back. I’m pretty simple and I love training and doing drills. I like freeskiing, too, but if I have the choice between training gates or hucking cliffs or whatever I’ll most likely choose training. Just being in the East, you’re training all the time, which I know is kind of a bummer because freeskiing is so good for your feel for the snow and courage with speed, but I just always loved the training, And at a small hill, it’s the most interesting thing to do, So I like it there. And skiing on such hard snow I really got used to skiing on basically ice because it was always raining.”
SKI › OK, but you went to Burke Academy for high school. So you know where to go on a powder day there?
MS › “It’s ridiculous because I’ve spent like five years there and I have no idea what the names of any of the trails are. Just go out past Dipper and go into the woods; it’s all-good in there. And if it’s a powder day, the training hill has pretty good powder too.”
SKI › How about at Vail?
MS › “I would probably go straight to Forever because I have special memories of it. I was 6, and I didn’t know how to ski powder. I kept leaning forward, because that was all anyone ever told me to do, and my tips would dig in and I’d wipe out. I was flipping out. Then my dad told me to sit back a little, and I just went straight to the bottom, leaning back, popping up on every mogul, my dad trying to keep up with me. Dad doesn’t remember it, though, so I could be dreaming it all.”
SKI › You’re a tech-event specialist for now. Are there plans to join Julia and Lindsey on the speed-event circuit?
MS › “I’m planning definitely to move into speed events, but I’m easing into it. In the spring I did a speed camp in Mammoth with all the speed girls, and I really enjoyed the super G and did my first day of downhill and had fun. I got a feel for what World Cup speed is at a basic level, and I liked it. I’ve always liked speed. I’m excited for more. But the theory is I should really get my GS and slalom dialed in because if you can have that totally dialed you can go into super G and downhill with all the tucking and jumps and the technical skills will be there so it’s safe.”
SKI › You’ve routinely demoralized your competition, at least among girls your age. Is there anything you’re bad at?
MS › “Ha, I’d like to believe there isn’t. That’s kind of an ongoing joke with friends, and I can’t come up with anything right now because you’re putting me on the spot. I’m really not good at telling stories or jokes. I get really awkward, just in general. But actually I tend to look for the awkward situation because in a way it makes me more comfortable because if I can joke about it and make fun of myself it eases the tension.”
SKI › Success means sponsorship deals, right? Here’s your chance: Let’s hear how good you are at promoting your sponsors.
MS › “I’m really bad at sucking up to my sponsors! Whenever I try to do something, like, post “I love Atomic” on Facebook, I know it’s annoying so it cancels out whatever good I do in giving back to the sponsor, but I try to just get it out there. I’m just starting out with Snap Supercandy, an up and coming brand with good values, based in Vermont. It’s sporty, energizing candy, but it doesn’t really count as candy because it’s all natural ingredients.”
Photo: Eric Schramm