Of Mikaela Shiffrin‘s incredible current streak — eight wins in nine World Cup races — perhaps Saturday’s giant slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, stands out the most.
The 22-year-old caught an illness that affected other racers on the circuit. She vomited several times before winning that race, NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said.
That wasn’t her only obstacle that day.
“It was set like a downhill,” Porino said of the second-run course set by a Swiss coach. Shiffrin was 21st-fastest of 30 skiers in the second run but won thanks to a .86 lead from the first run.
“It was all the things that she hates,” said Porino, a U.S. national team skier in the 1980s and ’90s. “All the things that was her kryptonite. Softer snow. Rough conditions. [Bad] light. 200 miles per hour. That’s not where she separates herself from the field. She still hung on to win. That particular race, to me, was wow. She is willing to accept the level of risk that I have not seen from her before.”
Before this streak began last month, Shiffrin was already the world’s best slalom skier. Already the reigning World Cup overall champion, the title associated with the best all-around skier.
If the streak taught us anything, it’s that she has mastered her nerves, Porino said.
This was a problem last season, when Shiffrin revealed she threw up before several races (not because of sickness like last week but anxiety which led her to see a sports psychologist for the first time).
“I would always contend, based on not seeing it myself but talking to coaches, that she was so much faster in training than she was in race day, which is not something everyone wanted to talk about because she was winning anyway,” Porino said. “That component of nerves is part of every major victory she’s had, with the possible exception of the Olympic Games [in 2014].
“There’s a looseness to her skiing [now] that is particularly evident in giant slalom.”
Back to the streak. It begs the question — who are today’s most dominant athletes?
Look no further than men’s Alpine skiing for one of the best.
Austrian Marcel Hirscher has won six straight World Cup overall titles and might be peaking this season. He’s won seven of his last 10 World Cup starts despite breaking his left ankle in preseason training Aug. 17. Like Shiffrin, he is a slalom/giant slalom specialist who rarely starts downhill or super-G.
In other winter sports: Canadian Mikael Kingsbury has won 12 straight World Cup moguls events dating to last January.
Japanese speed skater Nao Kodaira (in the 500m) and Russian figure skater Yevgenia Medvedeva haven’t lost in the last two seasons.
Expand it even more.
Katie Ledecky. Boxer Claressa Shields (78-1). Ronaldo (four of the last five FIFA Player of the Year Awards). UFC pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson hasn’t lost in nearly six years.
Polish hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk has won 42 straight finals dating to 2014. She broke the world record four times in that span and produced the 14 best throws of all time, according to Tilastopaja.org and the IAAF.
Then there’s French judoka Teddy Riner, riding a 130-plus-match winning streak since 2010.
Those athletes don’t deal with the variables of Alpine skiing. Changing weather. Changing light. Courses set by rival coaches. Ruts.
The added obstacle in slalom is the straddle, hooking a ski around the wrong side of a gate for disqualification. It happens to everyone.
Shiffrin’s top rivals have either straddled or made a similar big mistake that knocked them completely out of contention between four and eight times in their last 50 World Cup slaloms.
Shiffrin has straddled once in her last 42 World Cup slaloms — on Jan. 3, 2017, in Zagreb, Croatia. She came back to Zagreb last week and won by 1.59 seconds.
“To [her coach’s] knowledge, she did not straddle from that day [last January] to when she showed up there again,” Porino said. “I don’t know how many runs of slalom that is, but I’m guessing that’s in the thousands [including training]. That’s ridiculous.
“She takes those little mistakes, and she dwells on them until it’s solved.”
Shiffrin has made the podium in 25 of her last 26 World Cup slaloms dating to December 2014.
Other skiers put up this kind of streak in one discipline before, but none in the last 20 years.
Ingemar Stenmark, the World Cup career wins leader with 86, made 37 straight giant slalom podiums during his heyday about 40 years ago, according to his International Ski Federation bio.
Swiss Vreni Schneider made 26 of 27 slalom podiums in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
One number has changed in that gap — miles per hour — which makes Shiffrin’s feat all the more impressive.
“Bode [Miller] will say this, and I don’t totally disagree,” Porino said, “slalom now is performed at a substantially higher speed than it was performed when Stenmark was racing.”
The Olympics are in a month.
Shiffrin is a gold-medal favorite in the giant slalom and the slalom in the first week and the super combined (one run downhill + one run slalom) in the second.
Three golds would tie the Alpine record for a single Games. She’s expected to race the super-G, too, and possibly the downhill.
“If I can compete in four events, it’s because I think I have shot to win a medal in four events,” Shiffrin said before this season.
Porino is hesitant to echo Miller’s recent reported comments that Shiffrin may already be the best ski racer he’s ever seen.
She’s one of two to reach 41 World Cup wins before turning 23 years old, joining Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell. Shiffrin turns 23 on March 13.
But look at Moser-Proell. She won her 41st race at age 21, then took a whole season off to care for her father before he died of lung cancer in 1976.
Moser-Proell returned and won another 21 races. Her last race was at age 26.
Give Shiffrin a few more years.
“She just hasn’t passed the test of time,” Porino said.
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