For Vail skiing prodigy and Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, success can’t come fast enough. Adulthood, though–that can wait.
There’s a section on Vail’s Golden Peak course that even good racers dread. It’s a steep rollover, usually covered with thick ice, that melts into a treacherous dip in the slope. Coach Simon Marsh remembers standing off to the side of this particular obstacle back in 2001, hoping to get his young charges down the hill without incident. They were all capable skiers—as participants in Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, they had basic intermediate skills—but as they bobbed down the mountain they all struggled to edge their skis into the precipitous, icy hill and trampolined off the compression. All, save one.
Wearing bulky ski clothes and an oversize helmet that hid all but her tiny chin and honey-colored tresses, little Mikaela Shiffrin crested the rollover, arced a perfect turn, and then, skis still tilted onto their edges, softened her knees to absorb the depression. “I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Marsh says today. “At six, she was already a really mature skier.”
It’s a theme one hears a lot speaking with Shiffrin’s mentors. Words like “seasoned,” “responsible,” “advanced,” and “experienced” roll off the tongues of those who have worked with her. When U.S. Ski Team coach Roland Pfeifer met her for the first time at a Mammoth Mountain training camp, Mikaela’s ski-team debut, the apple-cheeked blonde was just 16. On that day in April 2011, Resi Stiegler and the other ladies of the U.S. Ski Team called it quits after about seven runs. Mikaela did 15, all the while demonstrating spot-on angulation, a quiet upper body, and razor-sharp turns. “It’s extraordinary that at 16 years old, she was just so balanced,” says Pfiefer, who is the women’s technical coach. “I have to work really hard to stay one step ahead of Mikaela.”
Mikaela prefers it that way; she likes to be up front. Last winter in Sochi, Russia, when Mikaela was 18, she became the youngest skier ever to win an Olympic slalom gold medal. She claimed World Cup slalom titles in 2013 and 2014. And when she races in this month’s World Championships at Beaver Creek, she’s expected to beat a field of veteran racers, including 31-year-old Slovenian giant slalom champion Tina Maze, who has at least a decade more experience than the young Coloradan.
But Mikaela has fast-tracked her skiing career. “I’ve rushed it more than others,” she says, admitting her impatience with conventional racing timelines that dictate major wins for twentysomethings, not teens. “Other athletes could reach their goals faster, too, if they quit the tentative ‘I have time’ talk.” Indeed, she achieved her first World Cup title at a younger age than Vonn, who was 23 when she claimed hers.
If Mikaela maintains the pace she’s on, she will likely surpass Vonn’s records and become the most successful ski racer in the world. To do that, though, she will have to branch out beyond her current specialty of slalom (the slower, technique-building event most young skiers start with) and into riskier speed events such as the super-G and downhill, where higher velocities turn the tiniest gaffes into major smashups. Case in point: Vonn’s February 2013 crash during a super-G race at Schladming, Austria, which put her out of commission for seven months with leg injuries. Mikaela will need to avoid such sidelining injuries if she wants to eclipse the planet’s top alpine racers. If she does, her coach won’t be the one to claim the credit. Says Pfeifer: “Her parents—the way they taught her, it must’ve been awesome.”
Two-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin made her first unsteady descents in her parents’ driveway in East Vail. Jeff and Eileen Shiffrin were both lifelong skiers who’d competed in masters races, so instead of enrolling their kids in ski school, they taught the lessons themselves. The Shiffrins took turns carrying their toddler up the snow-packed hill so she could zoom back down. They discouraged the V-shaped “snowplow” that is every amateur’s fallback move and insisted on parallel turns from the start. “Push your hands forward!” Jeff would holler. “Get your knees off the back of your boots!” It was the same primer for Mikaela and her older brother, Taylor. Both were determined learners from early on.
Less than three years later, Mikaela was cruising into Vail’s Golden Peak base area when she misjudged a snowy hump—colloquially known as “killer knoll”—and crashed within sight of her grandmother, who was visiting for the winter. Betty Shiffrin rushed over and wiped away the little girl’s tears, telling her she didn’t have to ski anymore if she didn’t want to. “It’s not that I don’t want to!” Mikaela wailed. “I’m just mad at killer mole!” Then she boarded the lift for another run.
The things that’ve come out of Mikaela’s mouth as a teenager have been just as endearing. Now an exuberant 19-year-old with a sincere smile, Mikaela has no act and no stage persona, despite the fact that autograph signings and television appearances are now a part of her routine. “She’s always herself,” says 22-year-old Taylor Shiffrin. “Even in interviews, she’ll tell the truth and not hold back.” Indeed, during her post-Sochi press conference Mikaela declared that at the next winter Olympics she’d be gunning for five gold medals, one for every alpine skiing event. No one has ever swept all five.
“I have no filter,” Mikaela says. “I just let it fly.” With so many microphones now trained on her, you’d think the brain-to-mouth habit would land her in trouble—but it hasn’t so far. According to Mikaela, there’s a simple explanation: “I say what I think, but most of what I’m thinking is PG-rated.”
As a skier, she’s uncannily mature. But personally, she’s still very much a kid—and unapologetically. She loves watching animated movies with her friend and teammate 20-year-old Lila Lapanja, who also shares Mikaela’s fondness for Epsom salt baths. During last summer’s training camp in New Zealand, the girls devoured cartoons and cookies just like children at a sleepover. She may wear grown-up gold-rimmed Oakley aviators, but Mikaela belts out Ellie Goulding songs while driving and swoons over unsophisticated treats, such as the sliders and fries at Vail’s CinéBistro, one of her guilty pleasures.
That aw-shucks innocence is rare among college-age Americans, and it’s no doubt the result of her cloistered upbringing. Although the Vail Valley might not seem like a school of hard knocks, Jeff and Eileen aggressively to keep privilege from their kids’ spheres. Jeff’s anesthesiologist’s paycheck afforded them certain luxuries—a designer handbag or a nice vacation now and again—but they still preferred skiing, playing soccer, or batting tennis balls to fancy parties and Vail’s cocktail circuit. In the evenings, they all watched movies and cocooned with their notoriously surly cat, Muffin.
When Mikaela was eight, Jeff’s job took the Shiffrins to New Hampshire, where the family bought a rural 10-acre property that offered even more seclusion. Jeff and Eileen helped coach a small ski club at Storrs Hill Ski Area for the kids, and Eileen ferried Taylor and Mikaela to practices in a Toyota Sienna stuffed with soccer gear, ski equipment, and school books. The time in the car was well spent: Mikaela was already outpacing her competition, beating kids in older age brackets and nabbing three wins at the 2008 Whistler Cup (a major international race for juniors), where her slalom time was a whopping 3.3 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
Five years later, when Jeff and Eileen moved back to Vail, Mikaela didn’t follow them: She joined her brother at Burke Mountain Academy, a Vermont boarding school with a tight-knit student body and a rigorous ski-racing program. Burke introduced Mikaela to her Yoda: headmaster Kirk Dwyer, who channeled the 13-year-old’s passion for improvement into a love of drills. Mikaela became obsessed with practicing fundamentals. Instead of using her training runs to indulge her love of speed, she’d sometimes spend as much as 45 minutes creeping down the slope, challenging her balance and sharpening her turns. “She applied herself to drills more than anyone else I’ve coached,” Dwyer says.
Dwyer concedes he’s known skiers who equaled Mikaela’s natural ability, but whereas most athletes eventually fall victim to some measure of complacency, the Colorado native proved immune to the mollifying effects of success—such as winning gold medals in slalom and giant slalom at Italy’s Trofeo Tropolino, a prestigious race for 11- to 15-year-old competitors and a proven harbinger of future Olympic success. Having assimilated her father’s dictum that tomorrow’s improvement trumps today’s achievements, she hungered for instruction, for any clue that might bring her closer to the elusive perfect run. She’d even skip races, choosing rote practice with Dwyer over time spent traveling and competing.
All those hours of repetition paid off in Sochi, where Mikaela made her Olympic debut. Waiting in the ski-tech trailer for her turn to race, she felt none of the nervousness that one might expect before a performance on the biggest stage imaginable. Confidence in her training gave her an enviable calm; only a case of the sniffles and an ingrown toenail niggled at her as she waited, curled up in a beanbag chair, hidden from the world’s expectant eyes. Her first run didn’t disappoint: Skiing with a quiet, fluid style that appeared effortless, Mikaela logged a time so fast it seemed unlikely that any other competitor could close the .49-second gap during the second and final run. Cameras cut to her parents’ faces, which were jubilant and proud. They knew all their daughter had to do was ski clean for the win.
Instead she redlined, charging down the slope with uncharacteristic aggression. Midway through the run, she lost her balance and let her left ski leap off the snow in a terrifyingly divergent course of its own. The goof would’ve cost most racers the win. But Mikaela regained her composure and finished the run fast enough to hold onto the gold.
“Thank God I did all those Norwegian turns with Kirk!” she later joked, attributing the apparent miracle to technical skills made automatic by years of patient, deliberate drills.
That’s the kind of disciplined—and self-aware—thinking many athletes don’t acquire until their waning years, if ever. Yet Mikaela is already a master of mastery, at an age when her body is also in its prime. That rare overlap of mental focus and physical strength could propel her to further unprecedented wins. And she’s got what any contender values most: a great corner man.
When Eileen Condron was nine years old, her father had her and her three siblings line up in the backyard of their home in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Each child held a tennis racquet but didn’t swing it for a full two hours while Joseph Condron explained court etiquette and how to score a game. Subsequent lessons taught them forehand and backhand strokes, which Eileen practiced by hitting balls against the red-brick wall of Lanesborough Elementary. Hours passed, but Eileen never got bored. “I was just mesmerized by it,” she says, “figuring out how to hit it better and better.”
Eileen had given up skiing (but not tennis) by the time she met Jeff Shiffrin in 1985 at the Boston hospital where they both worked. He’d grown up in Dover, New Jersey, but spent weekends skiing in Vermont before racing on Dartmouth’s ski team. Following Jeff’s example, Eileen took up masters racing (ages 20 and older) and quickly racked up wins. Then she agreed to two more of his proposals: to get married and to move to bigger mountains.
Shortly after the couple arrived in Vail in 1991, Taylor was born, followed by Mikaela three years later. The kids modeled not only their parents’ athleticism but also their personal values. Mikaela inherited her mother’s love of practice: Burke was Mikaela’s red brick wall, where she’d lose herself in rhythmic repetitions. Jeff, meanwhile, imparted his belief that proficiency leads to happiness—and fewer trips to the hospital. “When you master your technique, you can control some of that risk,” he explains today. So he issued plenty of warnings as Mikaela was growing up. “You blow your knee out at age 14, and your career is over,” he’d threaten. “I’m not going to support it anymore. You’re not going to be one of these kids who’s had three ACL reconstructions by the time she’s 20 yet still dreams she’s going to make it as a racer.”
Now, Jeff says, Mikaela no longer needs him to tell her what to do. But the cautions apparently sank in. Three years ago at a race in Åre, Sweden, Mikaela scaled back her performance in response to bumpy, low-visibility course conditions and was later unapologetic about finishing in 45th place. “Most young people will do anything to show coaches, parents, and sponsors how good they are,” Pfiefer says. But Mikaela’s sense of self-preservation tempers her competitive fire.
She’s conservative off the hill, too. Teammate Julia Mancuso may enjoy moonlighting as a big-wave surfer, but Mikaela won’t let herself take such risks. Nor does she join the parties that the ski circuit (aka the White Circus) is famous for. Over the years, Bode Miller’s post-race revelry has earned him as much attention as his Olympic performances. And even though Mikaela is of legal drinking age in Europe, where many ski races are staged, she maintains an a 9 p.m. bedtime. Pfeifer also keeps a low profile during racing season, never drinking in the company of his athletes. “Mikaela is so smart and knows so much about the ideal training,” he explains, “that she probably would notice right away if I made a mistake because I was hungover.”
Thus Team Shiffrin is quieter than most skiers’ entourages, and more reclusive. Eileen and Mikaela drive a separate vehicle instead of carpooling with the team and stay in unpublicized apartments, where they build nests in every European stopover on the ski circuit. Eileen cooks Mikaela’s favorite pasta dishes to fuel her training and serves as her study partner: The pair practiced German in order to complete Mikaela’s high school graduation requirements (she received her diploma in fall 2013). Now they’re tackling personal finance. After all, Mikaela earns a lot more than most teens. She won more than $257,000 in World Cup prize money last season, in addition to undisclosed sponsorship amounts (she just signed with Swiss timekeeper Longines).
Through every negotiation, training run, media interview, and transatlantic flight, Eileen is Mikaela’s constant companion. Her mom’s guidance, says Mikaela, has been invaluable; negotiating the fast-lane world of ski racing on her own would’ve certainly diverted her energy from training. “A lot of us are doing it on our own, figuring it out for ourselves,” says U.S. Ski Team B racer Brennan Rubie, Mikaela’s boyfriend of a year and a half, who speaks wistfully of her logistics support. Says the 23-year-old: “It’s an advantage that a lot of skiers don’t have.”
Mikaela sees no reason why she shouldn’t savor those benefits for as long as she can. In that sense, she’s smarter than most American teens who typically can’t wait to escape the parental umbrella and taste life unfiltered. But her continued reliance on Eileen suggests that though she may look like Wonder Woman on snow, life beyond the finish line seems scary enough to require real superpowers—the kind only moms can wield.
Eileen, meanwhile, knows no nest can contain Mikaela forever. “Mikaela is 19, she has a boyfriend, she’s becoming more independent. I like seeing this happening,” says Eileen. “There are days when I feel like I could go home and she’d be OK.”
The stricken expression on Mikaela’s face says otherwise. “She doesn’t feel like she’s there yet,” says Eileen, who adds that most 19-year-olds so still need a helping hand from a parent now and again.
It’s the one progression Mikaela isn’t inclined to fast-track. For now, she likes having Eileen by her side–except when the pair plays tennis. There, on the small, fenced-in world of the tennis court, Mikaela must stand on her own, facing off against an opponent who makes her sweat for every point. The volleys tick like a clock, rhythmic and clean, until Eileen delivers an unreturnable scorcher. “How did those skinny arms even do that?” Mikaela demands.
“She can’t believe that I, so old with wrinkles on my arms and legs, can keep up with her,” Eileen teases, and then play resumes. But of course, no one keeps up with Mikaela for very long.
It’s late August, and during a rare week at home in Colorado, Mikaela sits at a table in the Arrabelle’s Tavern on the Square. She’s just finished shooting a video for the Vail Valley Foundation, one of her sponsors, and is scheduled to film another for the Westin Riverfront Beaver Creek Resort later this afternoon. But first, lunch with mom. And girl talk.
“I am a tomboy, but I like to wear makeup,” Mikaela confesses. She’s become adept at prepping her own face and hair for TV, and she styles others’ locks, too. It’s a quirky skill to have acquired, but Mikaela travels with a set of shears and plays barber with a few brave “clients,” having learned techniques via YouTube. “She’s surprisingly good at it,” attests Rubie, who’s one of her regulars.
Appearance has become a key method of self-promotion for most athletes, and fortunately for Mikaela, she inherited a windfall of good looks. Her cover-girl smile and sculpted physique would win pageants, if she’d exchange the speed suit and skis for a swimsuit and stilettos. She’s aware that her beauty can help build her brand, but she’s still deciding how to steer the image machine. Certainly she’s no Missy Franklin, the 19-year-old Olympic swimmer who refuses to effuse even the faintest glimmer of sex appeal. Nor is she keen on posing sans clothes, à la skiers Jackie Chamoun and Mancuso.
Dessert arrives, a lemon pudding with pistachio gelato, and mother and daughter take turns carving away at it. As she licks her spoon, Mikaela thinks out loud about one of the skiers she does admire for the image she presents. “Lindsey [Vonn] did a lot for women’s ski racing by proving that it’s OK to look pretty, it’s OK to wear makeup,” says Mikaela, who respects the 30-year-old for modeling how athletes can be feminine and competitive. Suddenly, Mikaela’s tone takes on an unnerving intensity. “I will beat you,” she says to an imaginary rival sitting next to her, “but I will beat you as a girl.” It’s a rare moment where Mikaela’s must-win id sneaks out from behind her happy-go-lucky ego.
But it only lasts for a second, because once the image of the finish line fades from focus, she cheerfully continues to explain how she wants to cultivate her following. “I want to transcend my sport, but I’m not sure just how,” she says. Start a foundation? Collect a million Facebook likes? “I want to inspire not just young skiers, but everyone. I want to tell them, ‘Live your dream, go for what you want.”
Eileen nods approvingly. “Sometimes I wonder if skiing is really the best use of Mikaela’s talents,” she says. Compared with careers in, say, medicine or law enforcement, ski racing can seem frivolous. “Sometimes we like to imagine what Mikaela’s parallel life might have been if she’d chosen college over competing,” Eileen muses, imagining her daughter putting her prodigious energy toward other things.
Right now though, Mikaela is channeling her boundless gusto into expanding the career she already has. Supremacy in slalom was just the start, and although it took her 16 years to earn that Olympic gold, she’s betting her next four years will bring her to five more medals—which seems preposterous to some. She’d have to be a fast learner.
But if there’s one thing Mikaela has proven, it’s that she’s a quick study. She’s already expanding into giant slalom and won her first race in the event this past October (a tie for first at Sölden in Austria). This winter’s goal is a medal in giant slalom at Beaver Creek’s World Championships. She’s also been dabbling in super-G and may make her racing debut sometime this season.
Broadening her focus may have compromised her stronghold in slalom: In her first two races this year, she came in 11th and fifth. Not since March 2012 has she finished off the podium in consecutive slaloms. But Mikaela is OK with that for now; it’s part of the process of improving. Plus, winning her first World Cup gave her the confidence that she could be a mainstay on the global ski-racing scene. “I think everyone was wondering if I was a flash in the pan, and I guess I asked myself the same thing before that win,” she says. Her second World Cup slalom win and Sichi’s gold medal have only added to that self-assurance. Except now, she’s tackling fresh proving grounds in giant slalom and super-G. “I will definitely experience some insecurity,” she says, adding that she’s counting on bravery to overcome her trepidation. “With skiing, the more tentative you are, the scarier it is,” she says. “Your skis chatter, you get into the backseat.” The body follows the mind: When the psyche cringes, the legs hold back too.
“Ah well, my friends joke that if skiing doesn’t work out for me, I can always open my own salon,” she says, giggling. Eileen joins in, and the two unleash laughter for the pure fun of it, letting their throaty hoots continue for far longer than any cocktail-party chuckle. Finally Mikaela says, “If I’m really going to commit myself so much to a sport like this that takes so much time and so much energy, I might as well do it as best I can and get the most out of it that I can.” The best payoff she can imagine? Five gold medals in 2018.