If anyone is curious as to the secret of 17-year-old American Mikaela Shiffrin’s stunning success on the World Cup circuit, demonstrated once again today as she collected her second podium result in just 12 slalom race starts since joining the White Circus, look no further than hard work and an unimpeachable commitment to fundamentals.
Shiffrin skied with poise and executed her plan on the Levi Black course north of the Arctic Circle, though not exactly to perfection, in order to match her personal best third place result from last December in Lienz, Austria. Levi, Lienz? She certainly has the double-syllabic “L” venues figured out.
When her intentions for early pressure and smooth skiing seemed to slightly falter on the particularly steep pitch in Levi, she resorted to a fundamental skill in order to regain balance and form in the transitions between turns. In the longstanding developmental debate between focusing on speed or skill acquisition when coaching junior athletes, Shiffrin offers a convincing argument to stick to the basics.
“Definitely, a forward, double pole plant saved me several times on the pitch,” she noted. “It kept life very simple for me.” Or as simple as life can be for a teenager who travels the World Cup circuit with her high school textbooks in tow.
As a student-athlete at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont prior to being named to the USST, Shiffrin was the passionate scholar of the sport who was the first on the mountain and the last to leave each day. She sought mastery of even basic drills and once asked her coach, after completing an advanced task with no poles and her boots unbuckled, what other limitations she could introduce to increase the level of challenge. A blindfold was suggested, only partly in jest.
An ocean away in Colorado, Shiffrin’s classmates from Burke Mountain Academy, including her roommate of four years Brayton Pech, woke in the wee hours to watch the race in Levi.
The scene was something like you might imagine from a teenage slumber party. After a 1:30 a.m. wake-up call, the three girls were curled up together on one bed in front of a computer screen.
“Nervous isn’t the word for it,” Pech said. “No one was breathing, our legs were locked together.”
“It’s still ridiculously crazy,” she said of Shiffrin’s rapid rise to the world’s top ranks. ”To see her standing in the start, I know who she is, realizing it’s not training at Burke and that in a week we’ll be talking about some TV show, just being normal.”
And that might be the most amazing part about it. At Burke, where Shiffrin is a senior, she blends back in, sticking to her USST training program alongside her classmates.
“This fall we were doing a lift in the gym and Mikaela was next to us absolutely killing herself doing single leg intervals on the bike. Even though we’re not doing the same workout as her, she makes us work harder just seeing how much she pushes herself,” Pech said.
Roland Pfeifer, the Austrian-born USST coach who oversees training for both Shiffrin and Resi Stiegler, is known for maintaining a straightforward approach with his athletes. It has certainly clicked for Shiffrin, whose personal expectations are above average, not only in the gym at Burke.
“After Soelden she was a little frustrated,” Pfeifer remarked. “She had good training runs and her expectations were really high. In the end, it’s up to her to ski the way she knows she can and she did that in Levi. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
After the first run, pride was in short supply on the Canadian side of the North American border. Team Canada came into Levi boasting a strong squad of females who could threaten for podium positions, including Marie-Michèle Gagnon and Erin Mielzynski, who ultimately finished 10th and 14th respectively. Both athletes struggled in the first run despite a course set by one their own coaches, Jim Pollock.
While Pollock admitted the course was challenging, he suggested pilot error was the cause for any disappointing times.
“[The course] did speed up but everyone had a chance. The girls were [annoyed] after the first run but it was a solid day,” commented Pollock.
Canadian head coach Hugues Ansermoz was pleased with the end results, securing both a top-10 and top-15 place, but the day didn’t begin as expected when his team should have capitalized on the advantage of the course set.
“We didn’t start very well,” he acknowledged. “In the first run the girls over-skied and were a bit cautious, other than Britt Phelan. [Erin and Marie-Michèle] had great second runs. We will go into Aspen with a lot of confidence.”
Phelan will also have confidence now that she has cracked the curse to score World Cup points in her 13th start on the circuit. It was the first time in her career that she qualified for the second run, finishing 28th.
American Lindsey Vonn chose to skip the race in Levi, a challenging venue both for travel and acclimation given its geography and limited daylight, in order to focus on her training in preparation for the technical races at Aspen.
Vonn’s gamble offered overall title challenger Maria Höfl-Riesch of Austria a 100-point jumpstart on the season-long chase. Perhaps Vonn was banking on a victory from slalom expert Marlies Schild, whose day ended surprisingly early when she skied out in the first run, or a repeat win by local favorite Tanja Poutiainen. Although securing the lead in the first run, Poutiainen the Finn finished second overall.
If the absence of Vonn or the misfortune of Schild has tempered the success of the individuals on today’s podium in anyone’s mind, the Aspen Winternational is certain to offer a firm verdict on precisely who ranks among the world’s elite slalom skiers this season.
“I was on the podium is Aspen too,” Höfl-Riesch recalled of her results from last season. “It suits me, though not as good as here. It’s 100 points so far and I’m looking forward to going to the States now and make some more points, hopefully.”
As the women’s races move to Aspen, Höfl-Riesch will face challenge from the defending overall title holder, a rising teenage star, two Canadians hoping to turn subtle regret into victory, and an Austrian slalom specialist who is unlikely to make a careless error her next time on course.