Shinchiro Tanaka/Associated Press file photo
Shinchiro Tanaka/Associated Press file photo
This is what teenager Mikaela Shiffrin enjoys about skiing: Going fast, goofing around with friends on the slopes and grabbing quick sips of hot chocolate between runs on cold days.
What the 17-year-old skier doesn’t really relish – not yet anyway – is the spotlight.
Lately, that glare has been pretty intense, especially after she earned her second career podium finish two weeks ago in just her 12th World Cup slalom start.
With the circuit heading to Aspen this weekend, it seems that everyone wants some of Shiffrin’s time. That’s natural, because she’s drawing frequent comparisons to her idol Lindsey Vonn.
Success has come a lot quicker than Shiffrin imagined – and proven more difficult to deal with, too.
“It’s really flattering, but it’s also that much harder to stay focused at the job at hand,” Shiffrin wrote in an email after a recent training session. “Getting two podiums has already brought me a crazy amount of attention that I didn’t expect. All the attention – media, interest from sponsors, invitations to appearances, etc. – became exhausting last year with my first podium.
“Now with two podiums, especially since it’s the start of the season, the hype is really building again, even more so than last time.”
Shiffrin may or may not race against Vonn in Aspen. The four-time overall champion remains undecided whether she will compete as she recovers from an intestinal issue that landed her in the hospital for a few days last week.
Vonn or no Vonn, Shiffrin simply can’t escape the comparisons to her American counterpart.
She actually considers it quite flattering because they definitely do have a lot in common.
“I actually model myself after her a little bit in that I figured out a long time ago that I work best when I am focused, and she seems to go about training and racing the same way,” Shiffrin said. “We both are passionate about skiing – love going fast.”
Now if only she could borrow a page from Vonn on handling the pressures that go along with success.
“She has experience with all those big events like the ESPY’s and walking the red carpet; she’s been in several big U.S. tabloids,” Shiffrin said. “I feel like such a small town girl compared to that.”
She’s still quite enamored with the likes of Vonn and Julia Mancuso because they’re the skiers she grew up revering.
“I can’t picture the awe factor ever going away,” Shiffrin said.
It certainly was present when she met Bode Miller for the first time last season. As a kid, Shiffrin watched Miller’s movie, “Flying Downhill,” hundreds of times, and then suddenly she was sitting next to him at a table.
“I was so tongue-tied and dreamy-eyed, but he was so cool,” Shiffrin said. “He is just one of those people who is cool in all situations, and he alleviated any awkwardness in that moment.”
There has been no awkwardness on the slopes for Shiffrin. She made an almost seamless transition from the Nor-Am circuit – skiing’s equivalent of the minors – to World Cup skiing last season. She took third in a slalom race in Lienz, Austria, last December for her first podium finish and was voted rookie of the year by her peers.
That put the world on notice – this kid’s for real.
And then two weeks ago in Levi, Finland, she finished third again, just a fraction of a second behind winner Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.
Could her first win come in Aspen this weekend?
“I think I’m getting closer, but I can’t let my mind go there,” said Shiffrin, who will race the giant slalom Saturday and slalom Sunday. “I just need to ski my best and see how it turns out.”
She has family around to help lessen the pressure. Last season, Shiffrin was accompanied through Europe by her mom, while her father, a former racer at Dartmouth, handled all the logistics.
Again this season, her mom will follow along, just to keep her from getting too homesick. Eileen Shiffrin also provides home-cooked meals from her rented apartment in Austria and helps her daughter with homework.
“I really try to hit (school) hard in the spring, summer and fall, then I do as much as I can in the winter, but it falls off for sure,” said Shiffrin, who takes online classes through Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. “I would like to go to college, but don’t know when that will be.”
She’d also like to try out speed events down the road. Her coaches want her to perfect the technical events before adding the downhill and super-G to her repertoire.
Once she does that, Shiffrin should be an overall title contender. Only she’s not thinking along those lines quite yet.
The quicker Shiffrin flies down the slopes, the faster she sheds the trappings of youth.
Not long ago she was speeding down the mountain in Vail without a worry in the world, hanging out with friends and having “a blast flying down the hill – laughing, drinking hot chocolate, jumping, racing Nastar, and generally competing at everything we did.”
Now, things are getting serious. That’s what happens when you’re the next big skier.
“This year has been better as far as knowing what to expect,” Shiffrin said. “The flurry of media interest has been manageable since I have people running defense for me this time around who see to it that (I) have the time and energy I need to keep prepping for Aspen and the rest of the season.
“It’s been quite amazing. My dreams are starting to come true, and that feels probably 100 times better I ever imagined.”