By Nancy Armour |
Mikaela Shiffrin has found a way to deal with the pressure that follows success.
Have even more success. Off-the-chart, rewrite-the-record-books success.
Already a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Shiffrin’s results this season have put her alongside Simone Biles, Serena Williams, LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors in the debate over who is the most dominant athlete right now. She already has nine World Cup wins – the season only began the last week of October, mind you – and every race seems to bring a new statistical milestone.
Her Super-G win in Lake Louise on Dec. 2 made her the first skier – male or female – with victories in all six of the current Alpine events. Her victory in Semmering, Austria, on Dec. 29 not only broke Marlies Schild’s record for most slalom wins by a woman, it made Shiffrin the first skier ever with 15 World Cup wins in a calendar year.
Her victory in Zagreb, Croatia, on Saturday was her 52nd World Cup win, moving her into seventh place on the all-time record list. And impressive as that sounds, consider that it was only her 148th World Cup race. That means Shiffrin has won more than a third of the World Cup races she’s started.
Add her second- and third-place finishes in another 21 races, and Shiffrin has finished on the podium in just about half of her World Cup races.
Oh, all this, and she’s still only 23.
“It’s sort of like an out-of-body experience,” Shiffrin said Thursday during a phone call with USA TODAY Sports. “I don’t even know how to explain it. On the one hand, I realize I’ve had a bunch of wins this season and had a lot of success – the Super-G wins, the different records.
“But on a day-to-day basis, I don’t feel that. When you’re just struggling to get a training run in between races … it doesn’t feel different.”
Which might be the most impressive thing of all.
A phenom, Shiffrin got her first podium finish in her eighth World Cup race, when she was 16, and her first victory a year later, in her 24th World Cup start. (To better illustrate the absurdity of that, Lindsey Vonn’s first podium came in her 44th race, her first victory in her 59th). Shiffrin’s gold in the slalom in Sochi made her, at 18, the youngest Olympic champion ever in that event.
With Bode Miller retiring and Vonn closer to the end of her career than the start, the spotlight naturally turned to Shiffrin. And the larger it grew, the more Shiffrin struggled with it.
While she’s has made no secret of wanting to be the best skier in the world, the results aren’t Shiffrin’s barometer. It’s how she feels when she skis; the results are simply a reflection of that.
But we are a results-oriented society, and Shiffrin didn’t know how to balance that. On the one hand, she was trying to live up to her own exacting standards and the preparation they require. On the other, she didn’t want to disappoint anyone. She battled nerves often in the previous two seasons, most famously at last year’s Pyeongchang Olympics, when she threw up between runs in the slalom and wound up fourth in her signature event.
Yet the disappointment – if you want to call it that, given that Shiffrin still left the Olympics with a gold medal from the giant slalom and a silver in the combined – shifted her perspective. There are things she can control and things she can’t, and trying to wrangle the latter is an unwinnable prospect. Focus on the skiing – and only on the skiing – and everything else will fall into place.
Which leads back to her current run of success, and how it’s actually relieved some of the pressure.
At last year’s races in Lienz, Austria, Shiffrin remembers hearing the P.A. announcer rattle off all her achievements during pre-race introductions and feeling her palms begin to sweat.
“Because I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s a lot of stuff to be leading,’” Shiffrin said. “This year, every single race, it seems like it’s been another record.”
That’s not her being arrogant or even flippant about her accomplishments. It’s that this is her new normal and, like everyone, things that once seemed overwhelming become manageable as you adjust to them. Instead of a mind-numbing din, the buzz over what she’s doing is now more like background noise.
“I’m certainly not accustomed to winning. But I am getting more used to hearing those statistics,” Shiffrin said. “So the stats and expectations are not fazing me as much, and it’s getting easier to focus on the task at hand. And that’s the skiing.”
When she was a little girl, Shiffrin used to dream about this. Not the results or the records so much, but knowing she was the very best skier there is.
And now she is.
“It doesn’t feel like pressure anymore,” Shiffrin said. “I feel like I’m in a really cool and amazing position, and I should be thankful for that and for all the people who helped me get here.”
Success will either break you or make you stronger. In Shiffrin’s case, it’s made her even better.
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.