To get a sense of what set Mikaela Shiffrin on a path toward skiing dominance, you have to understand the Shiffrin family philosophy.
Mikaela and her older brother, Taylor, were not limited to the snow as kids growing up in Vail, Colo., playing whatever they could get their hands on from soccer to tennis to musical instruments. But if they picked up an activity, parents Jeff and Eileen made sure they learned it properly, channeling their youthful energy into a step-by-step skills acquisition.
“Both my mom and dad were ski racers and before Mikaela and I even realized what skiing was, they had us walking around the living room in these tiny, little, plastic Mickey Mouse skis that you just latched onto snow boots,” 25-year-old Taylor Shiffrin told The Post over the phone, just two weeks before the family flies to South Korea to watch Mikaela race for more Olympic hardware.
“My dad likes to say that’s how he taught us how to do just about everything. It’s not a throw into the deep end, like OK go for it, it’s a gentle progression, like we’re going to develop their abilities, develop their proprioceptive nerve endings and once they learn how to stand on skis and walk on skis, then we can take them out and put them on snow and progress from there.”
Taylor extended his talents to the University of Colorado ski team. For Mikaela, the steady rise accelerated through her teenage years and has had a flame lit under it in the last two.
With 11 World Cup titles last season and 10 already this season in 20 races, Shiffrin has tied Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll for the most victories (41) at age 22, and still has until her March 22 birthday to set the mark. Plus she has many more years to catch fellow American Lindsey Vonn, who holds the record for most overall titles with 79.
A .500 winning percentage for the season and a healthy chance at her second consecutive World Cup overall title? Not a bad way for Shiffrin to head into the 2018 Winter Games, her second since becoming the youngest Olympian to win gold in slalom at age 18 in Sochi.
Having added speed events (super-G and downhill) to her bread-and-butter of slalom and giant slalom under second-year coach Mike Day, Shiffrin could realistically win three gold medals in Pyeongchang, which would vault her into a tie for the most all-time among female alpine skiers.
“Most of us are really bad historians within this group, and we never discuss history or end goals,” said Day, who returned to the U.S. Ski Team in 2016 after three years away solely to work with Shiffrin.
“She’s very much a process-oriented athlete that’s able to put both successes and mediocre results behind her really quickly and just continue moving on. We don’t spend a lot of time basking in the glory.”
Despite her blistering start to 2018, Shiffrin looked uncharacteristically human in her last two World Cup races. She placed seventh in the downhill Jan. 20 in Italy and again in the giant slalom a week later in Sweden, after she lost her balance and skied off course while leading by nearly a full second.
Taylor Shiffrin feels strongly his sister, as young as she is, has broken through enough mental walls to cope with mistakes and the added stress of people doubting her.
“[Mikaela] actually does get very, very nervous,” Taylor said. “For some of the past really big races, including the previous Olympics and all of the world championship races, she was so nervous that she was throwing up and couldn’t feel her legs.”
“But that is also one of the things that sets her apart because even when she is so nervous that her body is telling her you can’t ski this course, she’s still somehow able to perform at an unbelievably high level above everybody else.”
Shiffrin’s battle against external pressure starts and ends in the gym. Her height (5-foot-7) and weight (142 pounds) haven’t changed much since the 2014 Olympics, but the muscle she’s put on — she squats 270 pounds these days — has helped her accommodate the physical demands of skiing all five events.
Shriffin’s relentless drive to be faster, stronger also stems from her motto, A.B.F.T.T.B or “Always Be Faster Than The Boys,” which comes to life on the back of her helmet.
The motivational phrase takes a backseat with her boyfriend, 26-year-old French ski racer Mathieu Faivre, whom Shiffrin referred to as the “least complicated thing in my life” in a Sports Illustrated feature.
As Shiffrin’s accolades pile up, the question becomes not if she can pass Vonn as the most decorated ski racer in history, but whether her body can continue to withstand the physical toll of the sport. Vonn, 33, has missed years at a time, including the Sochi Olympics, while recovering from horrific injuries, and still sits atop the World Cup leaderboard.
One solution, Taylor points out, is Shiffrin’s favorite hobby other than skiing: taking naps. She has been known to take power naps near the starting gate to regenerate right before her races.
It’s another example of the deep-seated confidence Shiffrin has in her abilities, though she won’t let that translate into an end goal of being “the best ever.”
“I’m not even sure she would admit that to herself,” Taylor said. “Because once you have those kinds of goals or once you shift the focus from the process of being better than what you were yesterday to ‘I want to be the best ever,’ you lose sight of what’s going to make you the best ever.”
Baby steps to history. It’s the Shiffrin way.