WATERVILLE VALLEY, N.H. — As busy as the last few months have been for Mikaela Shiffrin, the new face of American ski racing still made time to travel back to an event and place that holds special significance for her.
Shiffrin has only just finished competing in a grueling season on the Alpine World Cup tour. Her efforts have produced historic results. The 24-year-old’s 17 wins this season smashed the previous World Cup record (14), and her 40 career victories in women’s slalom is already the most all-time. In short, she’s been one of the most dominant athletes of 2019.
Given her star status, an appearance on Saturday at the US Alpine National Championships at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire carried significance.
Though she didn’t race, her mere presence at the finish line created a buzz, with flocks of junior skiers clambering for a photo, an autograph, or simply a quick word with the undoubted leader of the US team. It’s all part of accepting a new role. Lindsey Vonn’s retirement in February left Shiffrin as the most visible American skier.
“I do feel some obligation to find whatever [leadership] role I’m supposed to play in the grand scheme of things,’’ Shiffrin said. “I’ve always felt like ski racing is such an individual sport, but it’s practiced as a team.’’
The difficulty, she identified, is finding a balance between leading and letting other US skiers develop a process that works for them.
“I can’t just grab an athlete on the US ski team and be like, ‘This is what you have to do to win,’ ’’ Shiffrin explained. “It might not work for them. So the leadership role becomes sort of a gray area. What does that actually entail in a sport like ski racing? The biggest thing I think is doing things like coming to US Nationals, and being able to meet some of the kids.’’
It reminds Shiffrin of her own story, which began with racing in New Hampshire as a child.
“I’ve raced here a couple times,’’ she recalled of Waterville Valley. “Everything looks pretty familiar.’’
And the platform provided by US Nationals is one that Shiffrin is also familiar with, having won the slalom discipline in 2011 at the age of 16.
“When I went to my first US Nationals, that was sort of my ticket onto the B-team, which was my ticket onto the World Cup,’’ said Shiffrin. “It was a huge stepping stone.’’
Another component of her leadership role was a recent media blitz following the season. Shiffrin made a string of television appearances, including the “Tonight Show.’’
“It’s really exciting that people are showing interest, especially because it wasn’t an Olympic season,’’ Shiffrin pointed out. “I’ve had more interest and more appearances and media this year than I did last year after winning two [Olympic] medals. To me, helping progress this sport, and that people are taking notice, that’s super cool.’’
A year ago, Shiffrin was one of the faces of the US Olympic team in South Korea for the Winter Games. Though she won a pair of medals, including a gold in giant slalom, her experience was affected by an ongoing battle with sky-high expectations. In reaction, she made changes to her psychological approach.
“I think the Olympics played a huge role in the different kind of mentality,’’ Shiffrin admitted.
Part of the new mentality has been stressing process over outcome. Ironically, de-emphasizing the result of a race paved the way for a record number of victories.
“It’s an outcome-oriented goal vs. a process-oriented goal,’’ Shiffrin explained. “For me, that makes a huge difference. Some people are totally driven by just thinking about winning. And that makes them ski really fast. But I’m not that way. If I think about winning, I normally ski slow, or make a mistake.’’
Over the next week, Shiffrin will finally get to relax and spend time with her 97-year-old grandmother in Western Massachusetts. It’s an annual ritual she’s excited for.
“When I’m there, it’s chill,’’ Shiffrin said simply. “I have my best naps at my nana’s house. We play Scrabble, and watch ‘Grace and Frankie,’ and just hang out. It’s really nice. That’s sort of the most rejuvenating part of my life is being with her.’’
But mere weeks after concluding the winningest year in ski racing history, the new leader of the US ski team is already eyeing the future.
“One of the things that makes me excited is that there’s still so much left I can accomplish in the sport,’’ said Shiffrin. “I can get faster, so I’m excited to get going on next season.’’