PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Mikaela Shiffrin uses only one pair of skis for an Olympic race. But just in case, she has 35 pairs with her here at the Winter Games — and, for her, that’s a relatively light load.
She often travels to competitions with 70 pairs of skis. It is a herculean task to lug so many long, pointed, sharp-edged skis across three continents during the six-month racing season. Forgive the airline baggage clerks if they groan when Shiffrin shows up with a cargo van jam-packed with items to check.
“That can take a long time,” said Kim Erlandsson, the 29-year-old ski technician who is responsible for transporting Shiffrin’s precious gear. “Get there early.”
Unlike most racers, who ski in only two or three events, Shiffrin needs so many skis because she regularly competes in each of the five Alpine events. (Because of weather-related scheduling changes, she is skiing in only three events at these Olympics.) The races are wholly dissimilar, with varying distances, turning requirements and speeds. Each requires specifically designed skis.
Shiffrin’s slalom skis, for example, are 155 centimeters long (slightly more than 5 feet) and have an hourglass shape, while her downhill skis are almost as straight as a floor board and might be as long as 225 centimeters (nearly 7-1/2 feet). Within each race category, a range of skis are needed, as many as 25 per race. Slalom skis account for about one-third of Shiffrin’s quiver.
“It’s a load to handle,” Shiffrin said, conceding that she may have more skis than any other type of object in her life. “But completely necessary.”
Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic champion, may never need all 70 pairs of her Atomic-brand skis; it depends on the fickle winter weather and the vicissitudes of the roughly 20 mountains where she races each season. But Shiffrin has skied on and carefully analyzed each of those 70 pairs. She needs to know exactly how the skis will perform in each circumstance, and most important, if she can rely on them at daredevil speeds.
After trying each pair, she gives Erlandsson a detailed report — assessing their strengths in certain conditions, like icy surfaces, moderate or subzero temperatures, bumpy slopes or when she has blasted down the mountain at 80 mph.
Erlandsson catalogs those findings in a little black book that is Shiffrin’s equipment bible. “I have a lot of pages,” he said Monday.
All elite racers travel with dozens of skis on the World Cup tour, usually 25 to 40 pairs. Each has a different length, or wax preparation, or engineering, or material composition or the placement of the binding, which is how a skier’s boots are affixed to the ski. Since most races are decided by tenths, if not hundredths, of a second, the choice of skis — an intricate calculation that depends on terrain, temperature and weather — can be the difference between a winning run and a forgettable one.
The biggest part of Erlandsson’s job is to prepare Shiffrin’s skis so they are in prime condition and flexible in changing race conditions.
Erlandsson can grind a variety of deep-textured structures into the ski bottom. He then applies layers of sophisticated fluorocarbon waxes and powders, choosing from more than 50 types he keeps in two metal trunks. Using a hot iron, he can mix the waxes to create hundreds of options. The waxes, integral to making the skis glide across the snow, seep into the ski bases. Then a top layer is scraped off by hand before another wax layer is ironed on. The waxing process can take four hours, or four days, for a single pair of skis. The ski bases are also ceaselessly brushed to keep them smooth and polished.
Erlandsson, who is half Swedish and half Austrian and has been working on skis professionally for six years, also must keep the steel ski edges razor sharp, a task he does by hand with diamond-studded files. To keep the Shiffrin ski fleet even more adaptable, the skis might be filed to disparate degrees of sharpness.
The work can feel endless, and ski technicians famously keep late hours. Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin’s U.S. teammate, who has won more World Cup races than any woman, had a technician about 10 years ago who went by the nickname Chief.
“In the winter,” Vonn said at the time, “Chief pretty much lives off Coke, Kit Kats and chewing tobacco.”
On Monday, Erlandsson estimated that during the six-month ski season he works 12 to 14 hours a day, every day. That includes driving cargo through the mountains of Central Europe where so many of the races take place.
Technicians spend most of their working hours in a series of windowless, prefabricated trailers or in portable boxlike edifices that look like storage containers. Aligned side-by-side at the bottom of a mountain, the area resembles a Gypsy encampment, albeit one guarded by a high fence because of the irreplaceable equipment stored within. Inside the work spaces, it is wall-to-wall skis, and the floor is scattered with spent wax, drills, scrapers and dozens of travel ski bags.
For the Pyeongchang Olympics, Shiffrin scaled back her supply to 35 pairs of skis. By this point, at the end of the season, she has whittled it down through trial and error to her favorite pairs.
Still, throughout these games, Shiffrin has been in daily contact with Erlandsson to talk about her equipment. They deliberate over the choices and the modifications to be made before each training session and race. Last week, between the morning and afternoon runs of the Olympic giant slalom, Shiffrin visited with Erlandsson again.
What did they discuss? “Adjustments,” Erlandsson, a man of few words, answered.
In her second run, Shiffrin came from behind to win the gold medal.