Mikaela Shiffrin Can Go from Teen Phenom to Winter Olympic Legend in Pyeongchang

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2018

CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, ITALY - JANUARY 19: Mikaela Shiffrin of USA takes 3rd place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on January 19, 2018 in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

Remember how much you saw of Michael Phelps during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro? Prepare to be similarly inundated with a nonstop blizzard of news about Mikaela Shiffrin, who may be just as dominant at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

That's how imposing the 22-year-old alpine skier from Colorado looms as she takes aim at a historic gold-medal haul.

For the next two weeks, Shiffrin will be compared to America's most prolific winners from the Winter Games, including speedskater Eric Heiden, whose five individual gold medals in 1980 has long been considered impossible to duplicate on the unpredictable surfaces of snow and ice.

But Shiffrin has a shot. That's because no one else in the world is so versatile at mastering all of skiing's challenges.

She is unmatched at zig-zagging through courses in the slalom, the event that first catapulted her to Olympic fame at Sochi in 2014, when she set a record by winning gold at the age of 18. She's nearly as good in the giant slalom and alpine combined, and she also has staked out turf in the downhill and super-G this season.

After weather conditions delayed what was to be Shiffrin's first shot at gold in the giant slalom from Monday to Thursday, her first event will be the slalom on Wednesday, per Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden

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In an exacting sport where margins of victory often measure only hundredths of a second, no one expects Shiffrin to pull off a clean sweep in Pyeongchang. But she could consummate a three-gold triumph that would forever escalate her into the highest echelon of alpine's daredevils. That Olympic hat trick in a single Games has been accomplished by only two men—Austria's Toni Sailer in 1956 and France's Jean-Claude Killy in 1968—and just one woman, Croatia's Janica Kostelic in 2002.

It would be an Everest-scaling achievement, but Shiffrin believes it's possible.

"I think so. I mean, ask Michael Phelps," she said at the outset of the season. "I know it's not the same thing. There are more events in swimming, but do you think it's possible to win 23 Olympic medals in a career? I guess so."

Among Shiffrin's many believers is her idol, Bode Miller, another rare all-eventer whose six Olympic medals for the U.S. included one gold.

Bode Miller
Bode MillerBrennan Linsley/Associated Press

"I think she's maybe the best ski racer I've ever seen, male or female," Miller said this season, per Reuters. "She's so balanced, dynamic, intense and focused. So for me, I think she's got a chance in any event she skis in."

As for an Olympic prediction, the NBC commentator added, "I would say an outside shot at five medals, and I think probably, at her best, maybe three or four of them are golds."

From the start of this season in November through early January, Shiffrin looked unstoppable. She took a massive lead in the overall World Cup standings, racking up an incredible 10 victories in four disciplines, including the first five-race winning streak by a woman in 20 years.

Then came a tailspin.

In her final five World Cup races before the Olympics, Shiffrin's best showings were two seventh-place finishes. Worse, two resulted in a DNF—did not finish. And she essentially had a third DNF when she missed a gate late in a race, then walked back up the hill and cleared it, for 27th place.

After a giant slalom fall in Italy left her with back-to-back wipeouts for the first time in six years, a tearful Shiffrin admitted, "I'm not invincible," and acknowledged she had fueled her doubters.

"I can see it in my mind, 'Mikaela Shiffrin faltering before the Olympics.' And, 'The streak is coming to an end,'" Shiffrin told reporters in January. "But I'm not really worried about what other people think. That's a different place that I'm in this year compared to last year."

The reference to the 2016-17 season addresses the last time Shiffrin unraveled. Bad European weather derailed her obsession with nonstop training. Fears about lack of preparation frayed Shiffrin's nerves, and she was sick to her stomach before some races.

"I definitely have moments of doubt, and my best coping strategy is to rely on the training I've had prior to those races, because I have moments of doubt almost every single race," Shiffrin told Bleacher Report in a phone interview this season. "If I've had bad conditions for training, then those doubts start to become, 'Oh, this is a legit fear that I have about this race.' That makes it much more difficult to overcome, because I don't feel totally prepared to deal with it if something goes wrong."

But staring down adversity is also what made her enthralled with attacking steep slopes all over the world.

Alessandro Trovati/Associated Press

"I think any ski racer will tell you that's a huge part of where the passion comes from, the uncertainty every time you get in the starting gate," she said. "Anything can happen, but also feeling like you have control over that. I think a lot of people have an urge to want to control things that seem uncontrollable, and that to me is what ski racing is. There's a lot of theatrics and chaos, and I do love that."

Conquering those moments of chaos—like when she overcame a wobble in the middle of her slalom at Sochi—is what Shiffrin lives for.

"Turning something that looks like a disastrous fall into a turn, those are moments in our sport that I find inspiring," Shiffrin said. "It's just natural athleticism at that point. It's how much time you spent in the gym, how strong you are, how fast you can think on your feet. Because when you're going 75 miles an hour and you hit a bump, one person might fall, but you're able to stay on the course. It's a huge testament to how much the athlete has worked outside of the race, when no one's looking."

Three-time Olympian Steve Nyman instantly appreciated Shiffrin's resolve the first time he saw her, when she was about 13 and training on a course in Vail, Colorado, where he often dominated.

"I'm going up the lift, and I see this little girl ripping down the course," Nyman remembered. He took his run and then hustled over to the timekeeper and asked, "Uh, did that little girl beat me?"

The answer was, "No, but it was really close."

The two struck up a friendship as U.S. ski team members, and Nyman continued to marvel at Shiffrin's progress as she went on the World Cup circuit at the age of 15 and began winning titles at 17.

"Her understanding, her focus, her ability to take notes and want to improve is better than anybody I've witnessed, ever," Nyman said. "She'll get done with training and be writing down her focuses, and she won't even acknowledge you. She wants this so bad, and she'll do anything to get it."

Playfully, Nyman has sometimes tried to break that focus, without success.

"I'll tease her while we're training, just dumb stuff, trying to get in her head. And then I'll apologize later, and she'll just look at me and say she honestly didn't hear it. I'm like, 'Come on, really? I was such a dork up there.' She just has the ability to zone everything out, and you can see it."

Shiffrin demonstrated that focus while she and her upset stomach regrouped in 2016-17 and ended the season with 11 World Cup victories in four disciplines and her first overall World Cup title. She gives a big share of the credit for that rebound to the person who has been coaching her the longest: her mother, Eileen.

"She knows me the best, and she's the one who will pull me aside and tell me to go back to when the training was good a few weeks ago," Shiffrin said. "We'll pull up a video of some of my good runs and just remind me that I am a good skier, I do know how to do the sport, even if it wasn't great for the past couple of days. At that point, it's just reminding myself not to let the doubts get in my head too much."

Eileen, left, and Mikaela Shiffrin
Eileen, left, and Mikaela ShiffrinGiovanni Auletta/Associated Press

Eileen put aside her nursing career to travel full-time with Shiffrin. Her mother skied some while growing up in Massachusetts, and then immersed herself in the sport after her anesthesiologist husband, Jeff, a former collegiate skier for Dartmouth, introduced her to masters competitions. Eileen became fascinated with the intricacies of making perfect turns, and Shiffrin emphasized that her mother is every bit as important to her career as technical coach Mike Day and strength and speed coach Jeff Lackie.

"My mom is the only one who's been there since day one, and she's always been involved," Shiffrin said. "Her knowledge has evolved as I've evolved. I think it's a special relationship. I'm thankful for that, and I think it gives me an edge."

Eileen readily admits the mix of parenting and coaching isn't always tranquil.

"We've had our up and downs with me trying to be a mom and also a coach," Eileen said with a laugh in a phone interview. "Sometimes I get aggravated with her attitude, you know, the typical mother-daughter relationship. So sometimes we butt heads a little bit, but for the most part, we get along really, really well and always have."

Eileen naturally loves seeing her daughter on the cover of Outside magazine and Sports Illustrated, but she also frets about skiing's impact on the rest of Mikaela's life.

"At the moment, there's no way she can go to college, there's so much on her plate," says Eileen. "Even if it wasn't an Olympic year, just trying to be an all-event athlete is so consuming. There's no time left for anything else."

And while many are engrossed with whether Shiffrin can match Lindsey Vonn's career total of World Cup victories, or with how many Olympic medals she can pile up by 2022 or 2026, Eileen suggests fans should just appreciate the here and now.

Eileen says last season's frustrations with imperfect training conditions "are the kind of thing that can burn somebody out, and make somebody like Mikaela decide to move on. I don't feel like she's necessarily in it for the long haul. She may find she's had enough and there's more to life than banging your head against the wall, because she definitely believes there's more to life than ski racing."

Looking back on how her daughter stunned the world with gold at Sochi, Eileen said it was a blessing the Shiffrins were in Europe when NBC began cranking up its 2014 Winter Olympics hype.

"We didn't see any of that, and thank God we didn't, because it's stressful enough," Eileen said. "She probably won't see any of the commercials or any of the notoriety that comes out about her this time, either, and it's probably better that way. Thinking of being the American face of the Olympics is incredibly flattering to her, but it's not something she thrives on. If anything, it would probably backfire and make her feel like she has to live up to all of these expectations."

Those expectations for 2018 began to mount shortly after Shiffrin won at Sochi. Then, with almost a casual air, she told reporters she might win three or more medals at the next Games.

As bold as that outlook was, Eileen didn't regret hearing her daughter say it.

"I was super proud of Mikaela for even thinking along those lines," Eileen said. "I think that unless you start thinking along those lines, you would not even be apt to try it."

That outspokenness was at odds with Mikaela's personality, though.

"She's not a diva," Eileen said. "She has huge respect for the other girls she's racing against, and she'd never ever assume she's going to walk away with anything. She's shy, and she's not concerned with being the most popular girl in the room. She loves to fly under the radar."

She'll continue to fly down slopes in Pyeongchang, but it won't be under the radar.

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.