Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin, after the best season of her career, ponders what’s next

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NEW YORK — Mikaela Shiffrin, coming off what she said was the best season of her career (the stats back it up), sat down with OlympicTalk to reflect on last winter and look ahead to next season.

Shiffrin spoke at a Hudson Yards high-rise in Manhattan before an event as a Longines Ambassador to launch a Conquest Classic watch collection. Interview is lightly edited for clarity.

OlympicTalk: Seventeen World Cup wins, two world titles and four crystal globes. Best season of your career?

Shiffrin: Yeah, for sure. As far as every World Cup season goes, I measure my success off of my results. I kind of judge my skiing itself how I’m training, my technique and tactics, but the races are the best checkpoint to see how everything’s going. For sure it was my best season results-wise. I also felt quite a bit more comfortable this season with everything than I have the past few years. I don’t know if it was about coming off of an Olympic season and feeling like I sort of let go of the control I had been trying to grasp onto. I was like, you know what, anything can happen so I might as well try to enjoy this a little bit more.

OlympicTalk: Was the slalom world title, overcoming illness, the most memorable race?

Shiffrin: That’s definitely on the top of the list. I think there’s a few races that I’m going to remember, for sure the final giant slalom race in conjunction with winning the GS globe [for the first time]. My first super-G win. Winning the super-G at world championships as well. The slalom at world championships comes to the top of my head this season, but also in my career. The slalom was big for me because it was pushing through pain at a level that I really hadn’t experienced before. I’m used to pushing through aches and pains and some kind of discomfort, and I’ve raced sick many times, that’s not a problem. But the way that I felt for this race and not being able breathe and all of these pieces.

OlympicTalk: Was that the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your career?

Shiffrin: It’s sort of like ranking races. Ranking obstacles is a similar [tough] thing. Probably the struggles that I’ve dealt with anxiety have been more of the most ongoing struggles. This past season has been one of my most enjoyable even with, in some ways, more pressure. I felt like rather than ignoring that pressure I was able to accept it and then deal with it. It’s sort of rather than putting a Band-Aid on a wound, you’re actually just healing it and figuring out a way to accept whatever external forces are going on.

I had to go through several years worrying about what people were saying and what media was saying and what teammates were saying and competitors and everything and family and support. What everybody thought, the worries of disappointing everybody. I had to go through actually disappointing them to realize that it really doesn’t matter. After [finishing fourth in] the slalom at the Olympics was a tough period because winning a gold medal in GS and a silver in the combined, but having most people remember for not winning the gold in the slalom is strange.

There are some athletes that can go compete in the Olympics and turn a bronze medal into the greatest thing ever and people remember them as if they won gold. Then there are some people that can build up the expectations so high, and then anything less Is really a failure in anybody’s book. I walked away knowing that everything that happened, the schedule changes, all of the challenges that I faced, and that Alpine racers faced, thinking this was just an incredible success. Some people maybe disagreed, but you have to go through disappointing people to realize it doesn’t matter. Then this season, I was just doing this for me, right?

OlympicTalk: What does preparation for next season look like?

Shiffrin: When I go to South America [for the first on-snow training] in September, I’ll sit down with my coaches and we’ll look at the schedule, probably through January or February and maybe through the rest of the season and pick and choose which races are the most likely I can do. Then of course everything changes. It’s all up in the air if weather changes, but we try and get an idea of where we’re going to be at the beginning of the season and try and compare to what we did last season. So I’ll say I like this training venue, but I didn’t like traveling the day before the race to Semmering for instance [where Shiffrin was fifth in a giant slalom last December, then won the slalom the next day]. I was exhausted for the race day. I need a day in between to get my feet back under me. Something like that.

OlympicTalk: You had talked for years of a goal to win the giant slalom season title. Now that it’s out of the way, what’s next on your list?

Shiffrin: I don’t think there’s anything more. I’m still here, and I still have the motivation. I’m still willing to suffer in the gym. Go out and train on the hill. If part of me thought if I was like just out here trying to win races or there was some specific result I wanted to achieve, and I achieved it, then my motivation would be gone. I’m always saying I’m not shooting to break records. That’s not the primary focus. Although it’s something that’s motivating and inspirational, it’s not why I started skiing and it’s not why I’m continuing.

This season was almost like a test because breaking all these records, and achieving winning the GS globe, winning the super-G globe — not unexpectedly but in some ways unexpectedly compared to where I thought I would be at the beginning of the season. All these things happened, and I thought, in many ways, what is there left to accomplish? I still always go back to the fact that I feel like I can ski better.

It’s not necessarily winning more races, but it’s seeing if I can manage my schedule better this year. If I can get through the season without getting sick, without getting overtired. How can I work better with my team, with my coaches? There’s a lot of little pieces that can make it run more smoothly. My biggest motivation is seeing how much more precise I can be skiing. This year was so much more fun for me, not just because I had a lot of great races and won globes, but because my GS skiing got to a level that I had almost lost hope that I could ever get to that level.

Hopefully I can keep moving forward with that, and slalom as well. Speed [downhill and super-G] is a whole other beast. It seems like there’s a lot of untapped territory, even though results-wise I accomplished most of what I could really dream of.

OlympicTalk: Will your speed strategy remain the same: enter the first races in Lake Louise in December and then reassess?

Shiffrin: Start with Lake Louise, and then see how things go. But the fact that we don’t have a big event [Olympics, world champs] this season sort of opens up the middle of the season. There’s a stretch in the middle where it looks like there’s going to be a break in tech races for almost one month [in January and February]. If that’s true, then I’ll for sure take some of that time for rest and training, but I might be able to race in some speed races that I would not have otherwise considered.

OlympicTalk: One thing you haven’t accomplished, but have said you hope to, is win races in every discipline in one year. Could that lead you to enter more speed races next season?

Shiffrin: That’s something that I think about. Sitting here, I would say that wouldn’t be a thing that sways my decision, but you never know. It’s sort of like this past season, I wasn’t going to race the super-G at World Cup Finals. Then Sochi was canceled, all this happened, and now I’m in the lead for the super-G globe, so I have to race.

If there’s no reason not to race in a downhill or super-G, and that’s kind of the thing I want to achieve, and there’s a reason to, then I would race. But one of the most important things tot me is to not get greedy with goals like that. It’s a dream. I wouldn’t say it’s a goal. Something I dreamed about when I was little. I looked at Bode Miller, I think he won a race in all events in a single season [Editor’s Note: Miller never got all five disciplines in one season; but Marc Girardelli, Petra Kronberger, Janica Kostelic and Tina Maze have.].

Janica Kostelic won every event in the span of like two weeks or something [Editor’s Note: Kostelic did it from Dec. 21, 2005, to Feb. 6, 2006, leading up to the Torino Olympics]. I was thinking, wow, that was incredible. But the sport has changed since then. Maybe I boil it down to too much statistics. You can easily get sidetracked with those dreams, and then that’s when something hits. That’s when you get overtired and you crash, and these sorts of things happen.

OlympicTalk: Four years ago, you sat down with Ted Ligety in a film session and basically asked him, how do you do what you do? If you could show a younger teammate one of your race runs in a similar session, which would it be?

Shiffrin: When I watch video with my teammates, it depends on what they’re looking for. I do that, actually, bring up races from previous seasons and go over it with the girls, especially the younger girls if it’s their first time at a venue. But that’s more so they can get an idea of the hill.

I guess I would show my GS race from Kronplatz this year. It’s one of the best feelings that I’ve had in a race, especially in GS.The first run I was so fluid. It’s not even so much about the technique, but the mindset that I had and how it translated to my skiing was really cool to me. [Shiffrin had the fastest first run by a whopping 1.39 seconds and won overall by 1.21, her first victory in three visits to the Italian venue.]

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Mikaela Shiffrin takes flight for ‘most incredible’ experience of her life

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Mikaela Shiffrin has raced downhill at 80 miles per hour. She has filmed a commercial with Roger Federer. She’s even zipped into a bib draw on a dirt bike.

But what happened on Tuesday?

“The most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced,” the two-time Olympic champion said.

Shiffrin joined the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, riding in and even flying an F-16D twin-seat trainer aircraft out of Peterson Air Force Base in her native Colorado. She said that the trained pilots perform maneuvers at 450 to 500 mph.

“You can’t breathe at that much force,” Shiffrin said after pulling nine Gs herself. “So you have to do the tiniest little breaths. … I’m so dizzy. My knees are shaking.”

Shiffrin’s friend, fellow Olympic champion and Coloradan Missy Franklin flew above and around Pikes Peak in an F-16 in 2015.

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Skiing bonds Shiffrin and Paralympian who overcame cancer

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Ten years ago, Mikaela Shiffrin visited a friend and fellow ski racer in the hospital who was diagnosed with cancer.

Thomas Walsh could barely sit up or eat and later had parts of his pelvis and lung removed due to the tumors. Shiffrin grew up skiing with Walsh, the two sharing a similar instructor in Shiffrin’s mom and an equally similar passion for the slopes.

His condition hit Shiffrin hard.

Zip forward to the present: Walsh is a rising Paralympian fresh off a season in which he captured the overall World Cup slalom title – just like Shiffrin – and earned two bronze medals at the world Para Alpine championships.

His success now melts the two-time Olympic champion’s heart.

“He has that kind of `zest-for-life’ that is very rare, very contagious, and cannot be stifled. Not even by cancer,” said the 24-year-old Shiffrin, who wrapped up a season in which she won 17 World Cup races and her third straight overall title. “Thomas was always a much better athlete than I was. He was literally good at everything. I mean, everything. Skiing, soccer, a triathlon, dancing, acting, singing, school – you name it. He did it all and he was always the best.”

Cancer just forced him to take a slight detour.

Growing up in Vail, Colorado, he naturally took to the mountains. Walsh met Shiffrin in kindergarten and they became teammates on Ski Club Vail. He and Shiffrin learned to ski under Shiffrin’s mom, Eileen. He was talented, too, and was accepted into the Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont, which has produced such notable racers as Daron Rahlves and AJ Kitt.

About then, Walsh noticed something was wrong. An accomplished triathlete at the time, it bothered him to sit on his bike. Then, to sit in regular chairs.

On May 28, 2009, Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor that grows in the bones or in the tissue around bones.

It was Stage 4. The disease started in his pelvis and spread to his lungs. He began chemo treatments.

“Up to that point in my life, I had never really known anybody with cancer,” said the 24-year-old Walsh, who captured a giant slalom national crown this week at the U.S. Paralympic Alpine championships in Winter Park, Colorado. “I very quickly learned much more than I wanted to.”

That October, he underwent a resection that removed key bones from his pelvis. There went his ski racing career.

Or so he thought.

“As with every traumatic event, it takes a little minute for it to settle in – for the bigger picture to come into play,” Walsh said.

Three months later, he convinced his doctor to allow him to hit the slopes. Just a few turns on the beginner’s hill.

“Emotionally, it was way impactful,” said Walsh, who also suffers from lymphedema, a progressive disease that causes his leg to swell. “It was an emotional rescue where I said skiing is what I want to do.”

But he didn’t know anything about the Paralympic movement. Not yet, anyway.

After dealing with cancer treatments for a year, he attended Green Mountain Valley where he returned to racing and got more involved in theater. He starred in the production of “Anything Goes,” with Shiffrin showing up in the audience.

“There was a whole tap-dancing scene and he was front and center, tapping like crazy and singing at the top of his lungs, and I was just balling in the audience because I just felt like he was shining like a star,” recalled Shiffrin, who was attending nearby Burke Mountain Academy. “It was a gift just to be able to watch.”

The friends also attended a “ski-academy” prom together in 2013.

“When I was sick, we had a pact that we’d go to prom together,” Walsh said. “It was fun.”

Turns out, he’s a skillful teacher, too, as he turned the graceful slalom artist into a confident dancer.

“I was so shy and didn’t want to dance,” Shiffrin said. “You could tell he was the best dancer in the room. … I was baffled because I actually looked like I kind of knew what I was doing. That’s the kind of stuff that Thomas is able to do.”

Following high school, Walsh attended Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to study performing arts. It also provided a test: To see if he would miss the thrill of ski racing.

He did.

About that time, he and his mom, Kathleen, learned he could be classified as a disabled ski racer because of his pelvic resection. So he embarked on a path to become a Paralympian .

This only sharpened his determination: Using his Make-A-Wish request, Walsh attended the 2014 Sochi Games and was there when Shiffrin won the slalom gold medal. He posed for pictures with her and imagined that maybe one day he could have a similar moment.

Like Shiffrin, his specialties are the slalom and giant slalom. And like Shiffrin, he’s also incorporating the super-G. His idols include Austrian standout Marcel Hirscher, American Steven Nyman and, of course, Shiffrin.

A year ago, Walsh took fifth in the slalom and seventh in the GS at the Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang.

Now, he’s setting his sights on the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.

In his corner? Shiffrin, of course.

“Thomas and the way his life and his story have evolved, and the role that he now played in the Paralympic family and as one of the top athletes competing, I realize that it is the most inspirational comeback story I have ever witnessed,” Shiffrin said. “And even though that was never the intention, it is incredible.”

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