Mikaela Shiffrin won’t apologize for having big ambitions.
She used to sheepishly brush off her declaration four years ago that she’d dreamed of winning five gold medals at the Pyeongchang Olympics, blaming it on a lack of sleep and youthful exuberance. While that last part was true, she now muses about why her dream should be considered so outlandish.
She’s the youngest Olympic champion in slalom, winning gold in Sochi at 18. Her 10 World Cup victories this season put her career total at 41, a blistering pace not seen since all-time wins leader Ingemar Stenmark’s days.
The gradual way Shiffrin has added the speed events to her schedule — to say nothing of downhill queen Lindsey Vonn — probably makes winning all five golds unrealistic at these Games. Although Shiffrin did get her first downhill World Cup win this season and was third in two other races.
But the suggestion that she’s audacious simply to think of a gold medal sweep brings an edge to her voice.
“I think so,” Shiffrin said in late September, when she was asked during the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit if five golds was physically possible. “Well, ask Michael Phelps. I know it’s not the same thing. There’s more events in swimming.
“But do you think it’s possible to win 23 (gold) medals through an Olympic career? I guess so.”
A few weeks earlier, well before the #MeToo movement erupted, Shiffrin had talked at length about ambition and how differently it’s perceived in male and female athletes. Winning isn’t what drives Shiffrin. It’s the quest to be the very best in the world at what she does, and winning is a natural byproduct of that.
So why not put it out there? Is that any different from Phelps stating before the Beijing Olympics that his goal was to win eight golds? Or Usain Bolt saying he wanted to win three? Why are male athletes celebrated for their boldness while females are seen as brash?
“The difference is getting less and less as time goes on, but there’s still a difference,” Shiffrin said. “If I leave any legacy behind, it’s just the idea, just the theory that you admit to your ambitions and you don’t let people tell you you’re wrong to have those ambitions.
“As long as you’re willing to work toward them — you can’t just expect it’s going to be given to you just because you had the dream. But if you’re willing to work toward them, then you have to admit to them first,” Shiffrin said. “And for a lot of athletes, that in and of itself is the difference between making it to their goals and not.”
Given what she’s accomplished, it’s hard to argue with her theory.
Considered a phenom in Sochi — she already had seven World Cup wins before the Games — Shiffrin has since established herself as the world’s best all-around skier.
There are the World Cup wins, which she has amassed at record-setting pace. Annemarie Moser-Proell also won 41 before she turned 23 but, given that Shiffrin’s birthday isn’t until March 13, there’s a good chance she’ll surpass the Austrian.
In winning the World Cup overall title last year, she became the youngest to claim the crystal globe since 2003 and only the fifth American. She will likely add a second overall title this year, with more than double the points of Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener.
In a tribute to her consistency, Shiffrin has reached the podium in 59 of her 128 World Cup starts. Think about that: In a sport where almost nothing — weather, snow, course conditions — can be controlled, she’s won a medal in almost half of her races.
Shiffrin has become so dominant, she’s now expected to win, particularly in the technical races. When she doesn’t, the reaction ranges from low-level hysteria to a full-on panic.
She goes into Pyeongchang after an uncharacteristic rough stretch, not finishing back-to-back World Cup races for the first time since 2011 and skiing off course near the finish Sunday. With a second lead at the time, the mistake cost her what would have been another slalom victory.
“Media have made a bigger thing out of it than it really was,” her manager, Kilian Albrecht, told Austrian broadcaster ORF after the race.
That has presented Shiffrin with perhaps the biggest challenge. Bigger than any mountain, bigger than any other skier.
“I’ve always said, my expectations are higher than what anyone else could put on me,” Shiffrin said. “Then I start reading things, and I’m like, ‘Do they really think I’m going to win everything?’ That’s kind of unrealistic, and then I feel like I have to defend myself of why I might not meet that expectation.
“So that’s where the issue comes in and, honestly, it’s just thinking about all the wrong things at that point.”
Shiffrin felt the weight of the expectations most last season, when she said she threw up several times before races. But she ultimately came to the realization that those expectations — just like all those judgments about her ambitions — have very little to do with her.
She races because she loves it. Asked why, Shiffrin reminisces about skiing with her parents, brother and friends when she was growing up in Vail, Colo., and the ageless debate about whether to take one more run or go inside for hot chocolate and French fries.
“When I get back on snow, it’s almost like I travel back in time to that feeling I used to have. That youthful, 6-year-old, nothing else matters, you’re sort of the center of the universe kind of a feeling,” she said.
There’s the mental exercise of it, too. The figuring out of the fastest way down the mountain, and the training — on and off the mountain — that makes it possible.
But the winning — again with that — and the expectations that have come her way as a result, those are for other people. Her ambitions, her goals and the work it takes to make them a reality? Those belong to her.
“I set expectations for myself by saying things like, ‘I want to win five gold medals!’ If I come away with nothing, I only have myself to blame for how disappointed everybody will be,” she said. “But at the same time, who died? I don’t know what the point of life is, but I’m certain that five gold medals is not it.”
Scoff at her ambitions or raise your eyebrows, Mikaela Shiffrin really doesn’t care. She has bigger mountains to tame.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.