I rarely write about sport. Yeah, I’ve copped to being almost un-American in my sport choices, made mention of Formula 1 racing and long-track speedskating, and shared that I do enjoy going fast on skis.
Last week, any aversion I had to writing about sport got blown up, and you’re about to find out why.
I feel like I should toss out a disclaimer: I’ll be jumping into some ski racing esoterica in today’s missive. Let’s see where we go…
Last Friday, in a giant slalom in Are, Sweden, Mikaela Shiffrin skied to her 86th World Cup victory, tying Ingemar Stenmark’s decade’s old record for most World Cup wins by any skier. In the slalom on Saturday, March 11, she nabbed her 87th.
Like so many other ski racing geeks, I’ve been watching Shiffrin for years.
From where I sit – from where I ski – she’s elevated the sport in countless ways. Not only is Mikaela a moving masterclass in technique and consistency, she’s also able to express her experience in ways that transcend the level of typical post-game interviews.
Having watched and listened to her for as long as I have, I found (still find) myself in tears at the news of what Shiffrin has accomplished.
As an itinerant cruiser with strong giant slalom leanings, I have boatloads of fond recollections of watching Stenmark in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. I did my best to learn from him, having as much success as a late-blooming racer with New Jersey roots could ever hope for. (Though my father put me on skis shortly after I started walking, racing didn’t enter the picture in a meaningful way until my junior year of high school.)
Honestly, though, it wasn’t until I landed in Jackson Hole that I found my stride. A newbie on Pepi Stiegler’s ski school roster, I was surrounded by much better skiers – collegiate and other racers, Stiegler himself, of course – and when we weren’t playing in deep powder, we were doing our best to take cues from the World Cup racers of the day.
When ski design took a giant leap forward in the ‘90’s, everything changed, turning winning race technique into a two-footed affair. (It would take a lot of explaining, and I’m leaving a lot of history out, but the bottom line is that before ski design changed to what it is now, each turn relied heavily on one leg doing most of the work.)
I recall, years back, seeing videos of (then) newcomer Mikaela Shiffrin following and studying US teammate Ted Ligety shortly after her World Cup debut. Ligety’s turns were the stuff of legend, making him an ideal mentor for a young racer. (He retired from racing in 2021.)
She learned well, and clearly never stopped learning.
It would be easy to point to Mikaela’s ups and downs, to go on about the challenges she’s overcome, to get lost in yet another “up close and personal” story, complete with glurgy music for added emotional impact.
But there’s more than enough of that out there. (I’m a hopeless romantic, but given a choice between sport coverage that serves up heart-wrenching overcoming stories – and sport coverage focused on showing the actual sport… show me the friggen’ sport!)
I think what’s pulled me so deeply into Shiffrin fandom is a curious stew of memories of other American racers, (Ligety, the Mahre brothers, Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso, AJ Kitt, to name but a few), a lifetime of my own skiing experience, and the way she responds in interviews.
When it comes to those post-race interviews, Shiffrin possesses a remarkable capacity for reflection. She appears unafraid to go vulnerably off-road, to find new internal terrain, to do the honest work of finding responses that are refreshingly… real. It’s almost as if any inquiry thrown her way becomes instantly repurposed as an opportunity for exploration and expansion. And not just on the topic of skiing or race results.
I feel like I’m witnessing a thoroughly human, relatively young adult forge real wisdom from the (mostly) rote questions sportscasters ask. That she’s the very best ever at doing what she does is icing on the cake.
And yeah, I’m aware that I’m projecting all sorts of stuff onto someone I only “know” through scraps of video and online/print articles.
At the same time, I see true humanity and humility, real curiosity, an amazing commitment to craft and practice, and an inspiring dedication to include fun and a deep love of skiing (“it’s like flying!”) as key ingredients in her secret sauce.
My own projections aside, Mikaela Shiffrin is up to something spectacular. Indeed, Stenmark himself said, “She’s much better than I was. You can’t compare.” Having just turned 28, she has a long way yet to go…
And whether or not you understand and appreciate the finer points of ski racing, I think Mikaela’s approach to racing, learning, risk, “resetting” records – to what is, and what is not, important – has something to teach anyone willing to watch and listen.