Shiffrin ready to make more history at PyeongChang 2018
No female skier has ever managed back-to-back Olympic golds in the slalom, and only one, Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider (1988 and 1994), has won it more than once. Now, Mikaela Shiffrin, who has dominated the event since the age of 17, looks ideally placed to break the mould at the next Winter Games in PyeongChang. And her ambitions won’t be stopping there. Having claimed the large crystal globe in the 2017 FIS World Cup, as the season’s top overall female Alpine skier, she is expected to challenge for gold in other events too.
"[Skiing] is my art," says the American, who is still just 22, but already a seasoned veteran on the international circuit. "It's like a puzzle or a painting or music. When I ski, it's like a song. I can hear the rhythm in my head, and when I start to ski that rhythm and I start to really link my turns together, all of a sudden, there's so much flow and power that I just can't help but feel amazing. That's where the joy comes from." Her words offer an insight into the qualities that have made her such an incredible performer: she manages to combine precision and consummate balance, with attacking verve, fluidity and an uncanny ability to dig deep and recover from the trickiest situations.
Shiffrin is steadily closing in on the objective she first set herself at Sochi 2014, on the day she became the youngest Olympic women's slalom champion in history. At the tender age of 18 years and 345 days, she revealed her "crazy dream": to win five golds in PyeongChang.
Her subsequent progress has made this seemingly fanciful quest look a lot less impossible. This precocious Colorado-born artist of the slopes, who before turning 20 had also claimed two world championship titles and two slalom World Cup crowns, has gone on to increase the range of her "palette". While continuing to dominate the slalom, she has also developed into one of the world's top GS specialists, and, in 2017, recorded her first victory in the super-combined (downhill + slalom). And as if that wasn't impressive enough, she has also made huge strides in the speed events, the super-G and the downhill.
Bouncing back from injury
Her trajectory following her gold medal in Sochi has been nothing short of astounding. Having claimed her first FIS World Championship title in Schladming (AUT) in 2013, she retained her crown in front of home crowds at Vail/Beaver Creek in February 2015. This season, she recorded her first giant slalom victory in Sölden (AUT), where she shared the top rung of the podium with home favourite Anna Fenninger. She also notched five more slalom victories to claim her third small crystal globe in the event.
Shiffrin's continued rise is even more impressive when you consider that, during the 2015-16 season, her progress had been interrupted by an injury to her right knee after a bad fall in the giant slalom in Are (SWE) in December 2015. Expected to be out of action until the end of the season, she managed a miraculous comeback just over two months later in Crans-Montana (SUI), where once again she emerged victorious in the slalom. On 19 March 2016 in St Moritz (SUI), the American recorded her eighth consecutive slalom victory – finishing a full two seconds ahead of Slovakia's Veronica Velez-Zuzulova – to maintain her unbeaten streak in the event. However, given that she had missed five slalom events while out injured, the World Cup title was beyond her, and the small crystal globe went instead to Sweden's Frida Hansdotter.
New strings to her bow
The 2016-17 season was a big one for Shiffrin, as she continued to push the boundaries. In the slalom, she recorded her 12th consecutive World Cup victory in December 2016 in Semmering (AUT), to equal the record set by Vreni Schneider. And she moved ahead of the Austrian and into a league of her own with two victories in the giant slalom.
By the time Shiffrin took to the slopes at her third FIS World Championships in St Moritz in February 2017, she was also heading the overall classifications on the FIS World Cup circuit. An extremely solid performance in the giant slalom gave her the silver medal, just 0.34 seconds behind the winner Tessa Worley (FRA). She also produced one of the finest slalom displays of her career, finishing fastest in both runs to record a massive 1.64 second advantage over second-placed Wendy Holdener (SUI) to clinch her third successive world title. She is, in fact, only the second female skier in history to win three world slalom crowns, along with Germany's Christl Cranz, who managed the feat way back in the 1930s!
Ominously for her rivals, Shiffrin is also starting to get significant results in the super-G, notably a fourth-place finish in Cortina d'Ampezzo (ITA); and on 26 February 2017, she won her first combined (super-G + slalom) in Crans-Montana.
Her improved results and points tallies across the four World Cup events helped her to achieve one of the high points of her career to date: overall victory in the FIS World Cup. She is now the third American woman to win the large crystal globe, after Tamara McKinney (in 1983) and Lindsey Vonn (four times between 2008 and 2012). In the process, she also picked up her fourth small crystal globe in the slalom. By the end of the 2016-17 season, she had racked up a total of 31 World Cup race victories (25 slaloms, four giant slaloms, one super-combined, and one city event victory in the Swedish capital Stockholm). To put this into context, that tally is more than the Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark – who holds the overall record with 86 career victories – had managed by the time he was Shiffrin's age.
Asked, after her third world championship title, about the limits of what she could achieve, Shiffrin replied: "There is no limit! I'm still really motivated. I want to be the best skier, not just the fastest; I want to be the best technically too. I want to be the strongest, and the most consistent... I have a lot of goals in the speed disciplines. Hopefully, one day I'll win in super-G and downhill, but I think it will take some time before I can do that consistently. It's still a long road from here. I feel like I've just started."
At PyeongChang 2018, Shiffrin will certainly be odds-on favourite to defend her slalom crown, and take one step towards that "crazy dream" of five golds. It's a mission near-impossible that nobody has ever come close to achieving… but on her current form, it might be unwise to bet against it.