100 Days Out from the Winter Olympics, Mikaela Shiffrin Aiming Higher Than Ever

Tom WeirFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2017

Mikaela Shiffrin has hopes for four gold medals at the Olympics.
Mikaela Shiffrin has hopes for four gold medals at the Olympics.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The time was about 3 a.m. and Mikaela Shiffrin was fatigued and running on fumes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. But the afterglow of the alpine skier's stunning gold medal victory at the age of 18 was still burning brightly.

"Right now, I'm dreaming of the next Olympics (and) winning five gold medals, which sounds really crazy," Shiffrin told reporters.

Then Shiffrin instantly added, "I'm sorry I just admitted that to you all."

But here it is, almost four years later and just 100 days away from the next Olympics, and Shiffrin isn't blaming the late hour or youthful exuberance for her being so bold and ambitious. She has, however, reined in her goals for the 2018 Winter Olympics, if ever so slightly.

With the same tenacity with which Shiffrin clings to her skiing edges while hitting speeds of 75 mph on treacherous mountain runs, the 22-year-old still hopes to make what would be a historic run at four gold medals.

"I'm not going to take back what I said," said Shiffrin. "This year, if I go and race in four events, it's because I believe I can medal in four events. Whether that happens or not, we'll see what happens. But it's more about giving myself that opportunity, whether it's three events or four events. I believe in my ability, and I have a team around me that also believes in my ability, which allows me to stand behind that statement, even if it was almost ignorant in a way."

Barring injury, Shiffrin is a lock to compete in the slalom, her gold medal race at Sochi and the one in which she racked up a third world championship in 2017. The giant slalom, where she had three World Cup victories last season, is also virtually guaranteed.

Mikaela Shiffrin of the USA competes during the women's Giant Slalom event of the FIS ski World cup in Soelden, Austria on October 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / APA / Johann GRODER / Austria OUT        (Photo credit should read JOHANN GRODER/AFP/Getty Images)
JOHANN GRODER/Getty Images

The two events that are iffy for Shiffrin are the alpine combined and the Super G, where the U.S. team's depth will make qualifying for an Olympic berth a challenge. As for gunning for a fifth medal in the downhill, that will have to wait until the 2022 Olympics.

Regardless of her final Olympic schedule, Shiffrin's dominance on the slopes as well as her charm with the public and the media figure to make her the face of the U.S. Olympic team as it heads for PyeongChang, South Korea.

She's coming off a 2016-17 season in which she claimed her first overall World Cup title with a remarkable 318 points over her nearest rival. With 11 more victories, she brought her wins in World Cup races to 31. That puts her ahead of where Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark was at the same point in his storied career, which ended with the all-time record of 86 World Cup wins.

Winning four golds in South Korea would make Shiffrin the most decorated alpine skier at a single Olympics, nudging her slightly ahead of the three-gold, one-silver run that Croatia's Janica Kostelic had in 2002.

Brennan Linsley/Associated Press

Shiffrin probably won't know her Olympic schedule until January but said the PyeongChang timetable sets her up well for a four-event bid.

"The slalom and giant slalom come first, so for me that's great, because it sort of gets my bread and butter out of the way right up front," Shiffrin said in a phone call from Austria as she began her World Cup season. "Then I can do the combined and the Super G and I won't feel like I'm straying from my main events that I have the most chance to have success in."

Shiffrin knows she may be risking Olympic overload but counters that idea with: "It's not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it's close to it."

"The image of having an opportunity to walk away from an Olympics with four gold medals, or four medals of any kind, that's a very nice image," she said.

The irony is that Shiffrin partly attributes her rapid ascent in skiing to the fact she purposely curtailed her racing schedule as a youngster, dedicating herself more to training than competing. It's a philosophy she shares with two of her sports idols, Serena and Venus Williams, who similarly skipped junior tennis tournaments to focus on training before turning pro.

"I did a lot more training than racing at a young age, even up until I was 15 years old, before I got on the World Cup circuit," says Shiffrin. "I was always trying to limit my racing, only do the essential minimum of races. I think that's why I had success on the World Cup circuit at an early age, because I was really confident about my strength and technique."

When the snow disappears from her Vail, Colorado, home, that training moves into the gym, under the direction of her strength and fitness coach, Jeff Lackie. Shiffrin's Instagram account includes numerous workout photos, some of which show hundreds of pounds loaded onto her shoulders.

With loftier goals and higher expectations on the slopes in 2018, Shiffrin's responsibilities away from competition are growing as well. One important change for Shiffrin going into this Olympics will be focusing on being part of the 40-athlete Team Visa, one of the biggest Olympic sponsorships.

"Prior to Sochi, I had some opportunities and I felt like in a way I overdid it. I didn't feel comfortable saying 'no' basically," Shiffrin said. "I just felt like it's an Olympic year and I had to do everything and take advantage of every opportunity. This time around, I feel much more comfortable with my platform, my brand and saying 'no.' But Visa was one of the opportunities that I thought, this is really big, a really well-respected brand, and I know they've built their Team Visa every year based off athletes and their personalities, and it's not necessarily just who you are in the sport but who you are as a person, and that means a lot to me."

Looking back on Sochi, Shiffrin says she was lucky to still be a little naive at 18, which meant she didn't realize how big a deal her gold medal performance was until after the awards ceremony. Had she realized, she said she would have been far more nervous.

"I know how big it is now, and I definitely feel it more," Shiffrin said.

To cope with the pressure that will inevitably build between now and February, Shiffrin has a visualization exercise.

"I picture the entire field, the rest of the athletes, basically racing down right behind me, and they're all trying to catch me, so I have to stay ahead. It's almost like a fear of losing, a fear of being caught, and that there's a target on my back and I'm just trying to stay ahead of the arrow that's trying to catch me."

So far, no one is catching up.

                

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today. All quotes for this story were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.