Mikaela Shiffrin has spent her career breaking records.
When she claimed slalom gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she became the youngest-ever Olympic champion in the discipline, as well as the youngest American to win gold in any alpine skiing event.
When she won the slalom at the 2017 World Championships, she became the first woman to win three consecutive world titles in the discipline in 78 years.
On Dec. 22, she notched her 50th World Cup victory, becoming the youngest skier – and also just the eighth all-time – to reach the mark.
One week later, she broke the women’s record for most career slalom wins on the World Cup circuit (she now owns 38).
So far at these 2019 World Championships, she has claimed super-G gold and giant slalom bronze.
For those who like discussing alpine skiing records, Shiffrin is a gift. With each win, we dig into the databases and comb through stats to find some new nugget of information, some fresh way of qualifying her level of success. It’s our way of providing historic context for the way a 23-year-old skier from Colorado carves turns down a snowy slope. Because while it seems obvious that what she is doing is historic, records are the result of asking the question, “Historic in what way?”
To discuss these records, we become fluent in qualifier words. Words like ‘youngest’ or ‘oldest.’ Phrases like ‘first woman’ or ‘first American.’ Qualifier words are what make records accurate, but if you add enough of them, anything can become a record.
Given Shiffrin’s age, the fact that the majority of her success has come in a single discipline (slalom), and that the United States does not boast the deepest alpine skiing team, most of her accolades and records are qualified by these terms.
But at the 2019 World Championships in Are, Sweden, there’s a different type of record on the line, a record that doesn’t have anything to do with age, gender, nationality, or discipline. That’s because no alpine skier has ever won four straight world championship titles in the same discipline.
Seven athletes, including Shiffrin, have won three straight world titles in the same discipline since the first world championships were held in 1931.
- Christl Cranz of Germany won three straight in both the slalom and the combined in 1937, 1938, and 1939. Cranz won the combined again at the 1941 World Championships, but given that the competition only included Axis-friendly nations, the international ski federation cancelled the results three years later. The world alpine skiing championships then went on hiatus until 1948 due to World War II and Cranz wasn’t competing by the time they were held again.
- France’s Marielle Goitschel also won three straight titles in the combined (1962, 1964, 1966), but she finished second behind Canadian Nancy Greene in 1968.
- Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden claimed three straight slalom titles in 1978, 1980, and 1982. But in his attempt for a fourth straight, he instead placed fourth, 0.92 seconds behind the winner.
- Switzerland’s Erika Hess won three straight combined titles in 1982, 1985, and 1987, but then retired from competition.
- Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt claimed three straight in the combined (1997, 1999, 2001), but it was American Bode Miller who claimed gold in 2003, with Aamodt finishing third.
- American Ted Ligety won three straight giant slalom titles between 2011 and 2015, but he didn’t have the chance to go for a fourth straight after injury caused him to miss the 2017 World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Finally, there’s Shiffrin, who has claimed the last three world titles in slalom.
She’ll step into the start house on Saturday with the opportunity to become the first athlete to win four straight world titles in the same discipline. Not the first woman or the first American or the first in slalom. The first athlete. It’s a simple record, unencumbered by qualifier words.
But while Shiffrin is a goal setter, she isn’t a record chaser. The Colorado native has always insisted that she puts more emphasis on the way she skis than the result that appears next to her name.
“High standards, but low expectations,” she said in a media call in January. “That sort of mentality is what allows me to ski my best. If I think about the results first, I tend to kind of tighten up, and it’s not as easy.”
She emphasized this in a long Instagram post last Saturday, writing, “From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve… My goal has never been to break records for most WC wins, points or most medals at World Champs. My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start…”
Needless to say, Shiffrin likely isn’t entering Saturday’s slalom thinking about the historic implications of winning a fourth straight slalom title, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a significant accomplishment.
Of all the ‘firsts’ that Shiffrin has added to her resume – whether consciously or not – this one would mean something different. It would solidify her status not only as one of the greatest female skiers or greatest slalom skiers or greatest American skiers, but instead underscore the fact that she is, simply, just one of the greatest.
Coverage of the Women’s Slalom at the 2019 World Alpine Skiing Championships:
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