Lindsey Vonn is out with a bum knee.
None of the women on the U.S. figure skating team are favored for gold.
Enter, as if on cue, Mikaela Shiffrin, 18-year-old American skiing sensation, reigning slalom world champion, blonde and telegenic, down-to-earth and chatty. And, poised to win one, possibly two, gold medals.
There was little doubt, as Shiffrin tore up slalom race courses all around the world last year, she would be a featured personality come time for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Now that the Opening Ceremonies are just a few days away, the teen from Eagle-Vail, Colo., is an undisputed breakout star, the U.S. Olympic team’s “It Girl.”
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The Sports Illustrated Olympic Preview magazine came out last week. Who’s on one of the four covers? Shiffrin, front and center, smiling alongside the headline: “The Next Lindsey Vonn.”
She is already famous and known simply as “Mika“ in Europe, where last February in Schladming, Austria, her career truly took off. At 17, she became the youngest female world ski champion since 1985 and the youngest American ever to hold a world title.
So far this season, she has won three of five World Cup slalom races and finished second once, making her a bona-fide favorite in Sochi. She could also medal in the giant slalom, where through five races she has a second-place finish and a third-place finish.
“I’m going to Sochi with such a positive feeling,” she said on a conference call last week. “I’m coming off a pretty good season. All I know is positive. I’m excited to go and race my heart out and see if I can go for the gold.
“Of course, it’s a really big bummer that Lindsey is not going to be there. We’re all going to really miss her a lot. But I’m also really excited. I’m not really seeing pressure as a negative.”
She has good vibes about both disciplines.
“My slalom is at a high level, and I’m really excited to keep taking it up a notch,” she said. “I’m really excited for GS in Sochi. It comes first [in the schedule]. I’m really feeling solid in the GS. Every day, I do something better. I’m getting faster. I really feel like my first win is at the tip of my fingers.”
Looking at her lineage, it is hardly a surprise Shiffrin wound up a world-class ski racer. Her mother, Eileen, a former intensive-care nurse, was a top-ranked high school skier in western Massachusetts. Her father, Jeff, an anesthesiologist, skied for Dartmouth. There was no question their children would learn to ski, especially once they chose to settle in Vail, Colo., near some of the world’s most popular ski resorts.
Mikaela and her brother Taylor, who is two years older and skis at the University of Denver, hit the slopes as soon as they could walk. They were both racers by second grade.
“When I was younger — up until about 7 years old, before I started competing and training — the reason I liked skiing was because I could go into the lodge and have hot chocolate and French fries every day,” she said. “That was more my motivation for getting on the hill.”
But once she started racing, she was hooked. Give her a finish line and a clock, and she will press her shins into those boots and let it rip, zigzagging through the gates with perfect form, never satisfied.
“When I started competing, that’s when I developed my passion for the sport,” Shiffrin said. “My drive right now is competition. I really love to see how much faster I can get from run to run and day to day. It’s a very measurable thing. I can say I was a second faster on the third run and try to figure out why.”
The family moved to New Hampshire in 2003, when Mikaela was 8, and her father took a job at Dartmouth Hospital. Her mother began coaching her and remains very involved. Some critics over the years have been quoted saying the mother was too involved, too intense, but the family never saw it that way.
At age 11, Mikaela enrolled at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, a private boarding school for elite skiers that has produced 130 U.S. Ski team members and 45 Olympians.
By age 12, she had a helmet sponsorship. Despite her obvious talent and excellent early results, Shiffrin did not do a heavy load of racing on the junior circuit. In fact, she even dabbled in club soccer and tennis.
She kept a relatively light racing schedule, similar to the approach Richard Williams took with tennis prodigy daughters, Serena and Venus, who never got embroiled in the pressures and drama of junior tennis and rather spent the time perfecting their skills before joining the pro tour as teenagers.
Jeff Shiffrin had read an article about the 10,000-hour practice rule — a theory proposed by Florida State University psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers. The idea is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.
And so Mikaela practiced, practiced and practiced, and worked on skills such as balance by learning to ride a unicycle.
Shiffrin made her World Cup debut at 15 in March 2011 and made six podiums before she got her driver’s license. Last year, at 17, she won her first World Cup race — one of four she would win — and clinched the world title.
“Probably the moment I realized this could be something real and maybe long term was last year, when I won my first World Cup race,” Shiffrin said. “I was skiing among the fastest girls in the world and being able to come out on top is a pretty amazing feeling.
“All of a sudden, I went from being a teenager racing with my idols to being one of them. That’s when that realization clicked. That was probably the first time I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go compete in Sochi.’ ”
One Vermont academy coach dubbed Shiffrin “the Mozart” of skiing. Four-time world champion and U.S. teammate Ted Ligety has called her “crazy good.” On Feb. 18 (women’s giant slalom) and Feb. 21 (slalom), the world will see why.
Along with expectations come demands for her time — from the media and potential sponsors. It is flattering but distracting.
“It’s tough, especially at 18 years old,” Shiffrin admitted. “I have my parents and my manager helping me. I’m trying to keep it limited right now. I have a lot going on, and I need to focus on ski racing. At the same time, this is a good opportunity for me to build my legacy and as people say, ‘build my brand.’
“I’m trying to stick with things I know and things I like.”
For now, that means racing for gold.