For Mikaela Shiffrin, the story is “liberating,” but the hunt never ends


Mikaela Shiffrin’s 28th birthday took place on Monday in the tiny European country of Andorra, tucked between France and Spain in the Pyrenees. It was supposed to be a quiet dinner with her mother, Eileen; her friend Aleksander Aamodt Kilde – the Norwegian downhill champion – and her longtime physiotherapist.

This week sees the World Cup finals, the final races of Shiffrin’s 12th full season on the international stage. What they do mean, however, is a week-long exhale, well deserved at that. She has secured her fifth overall championship, her seventh title in her specialty slalom, her second in giant slalom.

“It’s the most liberating feeling,” Shiffrin said by phone on Monday.

Oh, one more thing: she will close the season having already secured the culmination of a career full of crowning achievements. Over the weekend, she won a giant slalom in Are, Sweden for her 86th World Cup victory, tying Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark for the longest time ever. The next day she won a slalom to overtake No. 87 Stenmark.

“That’s one too very liberating feeling,” she said. “But as soon as I crossed the finish line, people started asking for 100. So it’s like, ‘Well, I guess that’s how things go.’”

Mikaela Shiffrin breaks Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup win record

Shiffrin exposes herself to unreasonable expectations because she so regularly accomplishes things no one else has. If Lindsey Vonn’s record for World Cup wins by a woman were achievable – as in January, when Shiffrin won for the eighth time this season and 82nd time of her career – then Stenmark could be caught and overtaken in the same season. If she has 87 wins from 13 this season alone, then 100 is on the cards. Shiffrin constantly faces questions about what’s next because she’s constantly forcing a recalibration of what’s possible.

“Going into this season, I really didn’t think that was going to be a consideration at all,” Shiffrin said. “Somehow it was, and now it’s happened. It feels like a blink of an eye, but it’s not. It was worth the work of an entire season – or 10 seasons or 12 seasons. It’s kind of difficult to grasp it all.”

Join the club. But as Shiffrin gets older, she’s not just eyeing 87 or 100 wins, or a sixth world title, or whatever statistical outlier she produces next. Her skiing legacy would be secured if she retired before this weekend. So she decided to step it up in another area: by hiring Karin Harjo as her trainer, which immediately made Harjo one of the most prominent female trainers in a profession that is still male-dominated.

“The decision really boiled down to the fact that if I could choose to have something as part of my legacy, it would be to highlight female coaching and make female coaches more visible,” said Shiffrin, whose mother has always been an integral part their coaching team. “…Having a woman as head coach — so really taking the lead — as soon as I thought about it, I was like, ‘This has to happen. That would be the last thing I want to achieve for the rest of my career.’”

This didn’t happen in the smoothest way. Shiffrin dated her trainer Mike Day for seven seasons. She said she made the decision to join Harjo around the time of the World Championships last month. “I didn’t take it lightly,” she said. She told Day how he led to these races. Instead of staying until the end of the season, Day left immediately.

“It was announced somewhat turbulently,” Shiffrin said. That week she won a gold and two silvers at world championships.

Harjo, a former US Ski and Snowboard Association assistant who worked with the Canadian team, is tasked with guiding Shiffrin through the end of her career.

“Karin — not just as a woman, first and foremost — she’s an incredible coach,” Shiffrin said. “She is brilliant at technology, logistical planning and video analysis. She’s great on the hill. She creates a great team atmosphere. Everything I know about her is super positive.”

From the Olympics: In Olympics to forget, Mikaela Shiffrin gives us a lesson to remember

Harjo will start her new job with a training camp in Norway next month – a training camp right after the end of the season. Shiffrin has spent her entire adult life traveling the world and competing. She remains a workout fanatic. The next Olympics — when it will resurface in mainstream American sports consciousness — isn’t more than three years away, but it’s taking place in the Italian Alps, Cortina d’Ampezzo, where Shiffrin has raced and won.

Despite all the fears over her 0-for-Beijing performance last year, she has three Olympic medals, more than any other American alpine skier save Julia Mancuso’s four. Who knows how many World Cup victories she will have by then? She will soon be 31 years old. Could Cortina be a finish line?

“I feel very comfortable skiing through these Olympics, but I think it’s too early to decide what would happen after that,” she said. “So much of that will depend on how I actually feel next season. Is the motivation really there? I am not completely sure. But I think so, because even now, when I think about racing, I get a bit of a nervous heartbeat. And that shows me that the motivation is there.”

The motivation for No. 88, which could come this week. The motivation for 100? Rather the motivation for the next perfect corner, the next perfect race that’s still out there. Mikaela Shiffrin has just turned 28, and yet, “My gut tells people I’m 19.” Her 19-year-old self couldn’t have imagined 87 World Cup victories — or whatever comes as the next new standard. For Mikaela Shiffrin, the story is “liberating,” but the hunt never ends

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