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Mikaela Shiffrin Wants to Return to Attacking the Mountain

Mikaela Shiffrin's rise as one of skiing's brightest young stars has showed no sign of slowing since her gold-medal performance at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Now she faces the first major setback of her career, a significant injury.
January 25, 2016, 8:26pm
Photo by Johann Groder/EPA

Downhill skiing is all about speed, and few people have gone so fast, so quickly as Mikaela Shiffrin, a slalom specialist who became the discipline's youngest gold medalist in the 2014 Sochi Olympics at just 19 years old. Her rise as one of the sport's brightest young stars has showed no sign of slowing since then.

Now Shiffrin faces the first major setback of her career, a significant injury. It happened last month at the Alpine Ski World Cup in Are, Sweden. During warm-ups for the Giant Slalom event on December 12, she hit a patch of ice, hyperextended her right knee, and spilled into a safety net. She announced that she suffered bone bruising and a torn MCL later that day. Fortunately, her injuries didn't require surgery, but Shiffrin had to put her season on hold and fly home to Colorado for recovery.

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Until that point, Shiffrin was having another successful World Cup run. In November, at the circuit's second stop of the season in Aspen—just hours away from her hometown of Vail—she captured back-to-back slalom wins. It marked the first World Cup victory for an American in Aspen since 1984, and the first for an American woman since 1981. She did it by record margins, too, including an astounding 3.07 seconds in the first race, the largest gap between first and second in women's World Cup slalom history. Shiffrin was still beaming when she sat down to talk the following day.

"I'm intrigued by trying to find the perfect group of turns—the fastest way you can ski down the mountain," she told me. "I don't think anybody's ever really skied a run perfectly. There's always a faster way. We're all pushing the limit."

Shiffrin celebrates on the podium at Aspen. — Photo by Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Shiffrin has relentlessly pushed herself since her World Cup debut at age 15. Now 20, she has already bagged 17 World Cup victories, including two before her 18th birthday—the only American to do so. Her form is surgical verging on robotic, and she explains it to laypeople with a doctor's bedside manner—wheels turning, regularly checking in with her audience as she simplifies the difficult and complex technique essential to her sport, and its essential impossibility of the piloting of hairpin turns on slender planks at a bewildering clip.

"You can pretty much break a ski turn down into steps," she said. "It's almost like a circle, where there's not really a starting point or an end point"—here she paused, catching herself—"I mean, I guess the starting point would be a starting gate, but it just depends upon where you are in the turn. So you go through this cycle of steps, and if you're good at it and you can link those turns together, then it ends up being really fast."

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Shiffrin makes it sound—and look—easy, almost procedural. Some of that may stem from her upbringing. Both her parents, in addition to being competitive skiers, work in medicine, where precision can be the difference between life and death; her father, Jeff, is an anesthesiologist, her mother, Eileen, a nurse.

"Mikaela is very methodical. A large degree of that mentality is attributed to our parents," said her older brother, Taylor, who skis for the University of Denver. "We were taught to always have a directed task that would help us move toward our goals."

Now Shiffrin's main goal is returning to full health and, it follows, the slopes. "It's funny how fast life can become really slow," she posted on social media a week after arriving in Colorado. Four days later: "I had a dream about walking last night. WALKING."

"Naturally she was a little bummed, but she has a high degree of mental fortitude," Taylor said. "She seems to be going about her business the way she usually would, but now her attention is focused on healing."

The injury does offer Shiffrin something of a break from the hectic lifestyle of an Olympic champion. This December, for example, marked the first time she was home for the holidays in six years. "Every year around Christmas, I wish I could just be home with my family for one day," she told a local news station. "Be careful what you wish for. I hope I'm not home again next year."

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For the most part, though, Shiffrin doesn't seem to mind the challenges of a world-class athletic career. "My life is pretty sweet," she said with a chuckle while we were in Aspen. "I don't feel like I'm missing out. I almost feel like everybody else is missing out. I just felt like I had already decided to make the sacrifices before I even knew that they were sacrifices to make."

Shiffrin at an Atomic event in Austria late last year. — Photo by Barbara Gindl/EPA

In a typical year, Shiffrin spends no fewer than nine months on snow, with the other two or three in the gym. As her victories have mounted, including the 2013 and 2015 slalom world championships (2014 was the Olympic year) and three straight World Cup slalom season crowns (2013, '14, '15), the demands on her remaining time have grown, from media outlets clamoring for access to global brands such as Barilla, Atomic, Oakley, and Longines that wish to associate themselves with her. It probably doesn't hurt that Shiffrin, with her golden hair and soft seafoam eyes, has the all-American good looks beloved by sponsors, on top of her undeniable talent.

"The more attention I get, the more exhausting it is," Shiffrin said, her hair draped over a navy Barilla-branded sport coat. "I'm sure when I look back on my career, I'll think, 'I'm good. I don't need any more attention than that.' It's also a really good thing for my career, so I'm just trying to put it into perspective, and not just go hole up in my room all day—a crazy cat lady staring at my gold medal all day long."

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Shiffrin does acknowledge having had to forfeit a normal childhood and adolescence, and that she's become more aware of that lately. Her best friend from high school, for instance, is now on the ski team at Boston College. "Obviously Boston's not on the World Cup tour," said Shiffrin. "I see her for two days out of the year, but we FaceTime a lot, and it works. And that's the kind of stuff I feel that I'm missing out, a little bit. So it's just kind of an interesting lifestyle. But it could be a lot worse."

Shiffrin doing what she does best. Photo by John G. Mabanglo/EPA

Shiffrin's optimism has extended to her injury and recovery. "I fully expect to squeeze in a few more races in this season," she told VICE Sports earlier this month. "I am not an athlete to be reckless. I tend to be very calculated, but I am feeling good and hope to feel 100 percent fairly soon."

Last Monday, however, Shiffrin's agent confirmed reports that the skier's bone bruise was in fact a fracture, further delaying her return to competition. That same day, Shiffrin posted a note on Facebook: "Dear skiing. I miss you. That's all for now. PS. Be back soon."

Signs now point to Shiffrin's return to competition having to wait until the 2016-17 World Cup season. Once back on the slopes, though, she will relaunch her pursuit of the perfect run—and once again push the envelope and face her fears anew.

"Those are actually some things I've been working on—pushing the limits of how tight I can turn and how much I can attack on a mountain, even though it is a little bit intimidating sometimes," she said back in Aspen. "The more I push limits, the more comfortable I am. That fear just isn't there anymore."