It wasn’t a question of if, just when and where. Barring an orthopedic catastrophe, Mikaela Shiffrin was going to set the record for most World Cup victories by an Alpine skier. The when turned out to be Saturday and the where was the Swedish resort of Are as Shiffrin eclipsed Ingemar Stenmark’s standard of 86 by winning the slalom by nearly a second over Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener.
“Pretty hard to comprehend,” said Shiffrin after she posted her 13th victory of the season in the same place where she claimed her first one in 2012.
By now there was little question that the 27-year-old Shiffrin already was the greatest-ever skier of any gender. Stenmark, the Swedish legend who raced in the 1970s and ‘80s, said so himself.
“She’s much better than I was,” he observed recently. “You cannot compare. She has everything.”
The major difference between the two is that Stenmark was strictly a technical competitor, with all of his World Cup victories, and all but two of his 155 podium finishes, coming in the slalom and giant slalom. Shiffrin’s triumphs have been across all six events, eight of them in the downhill and Super G.
“I could never have been so good in all disciplines,” Stenmark said.
Shiffrin’s versatility sets her apart. She likes taking on the speed racers.
“I definitely feed off challenges,” she said earlier in her career. “Or at least I think I do.”
Her greatest challenge has been coming back from last year’s disastrous Olympic experience in Beijing, where she came in favored to win four medals and ended up with three DNFs, a ninth, and an 18th.
“Right now I just feel like a joke,” said Shiffrin at the time, who was described as a choker and a loser.
She quickly turned the page after the Games, making the podium at the next two World Cup stops and winning the downhill and placing second in the Super G in the season finale, collecting her fourth overall crown.
But the unresolved question was how Shiffrin would fare at this year’s World Championships in France, which had the same on-the-day resolution as the Olympics.
Winning on the World Cup circuit and winning at a two-week-long global competition require different skill sets. The World Cup, which skiers consider the truer test of a champion, goes for six months and hopscotches around a dozen countries.
It’s Aspen this week, Kitzbuehel next week, then on to Bormio, Garmisch, Chamonix, St. Moritz, and a couple dozen other spots. Competitors pile up points, an overall champion is crowned, and crystal globes are awarded to the victors in each discipline.
The World Cup grind, with its constant travel and variable snow and wind conditions, tests adaptability and durability. Shiffrin’s victories have been earned at more than 30 venues in 16 countries. This season alone she has stood atop the award stand in eight nations.
But she also is a proven champion of the on-the-day format that captures the attention of most of the world that can’t find Wengen on a map.
Shiffrin was 18 when she won her first Olympic gold in 2014, the youngest slalom champion in history. She took gold in the giant slalom and silver in the combined in 2018.
At her five previous World Championships, Shiffrin won 11 medals in four events, six of them gold. But all of that was overshadowed by her Beijing bust.
“I won’t ever get over this,” she said after she crashed in the giant slalom, her first event.
Shiffrin always has been hard on herself and candid about what the quest for victory takes out of her.
“I feel I have to go to a very dark place,” she once said. “I’m freaking out, I’m nervous, I feel like I’m going to puke. That’s a really unpleasant experience.”
Shiffrin arrived at last month’s global event with predictable carryover pressure.
“Everyone talked about the Olympics,” she said. “I think I answered 200 questions the last four weeks about, ‘Are you afraid the World Championships are going to be more like the Olympics and you won’t get a medal?’ ”
When she skied out of her first event, the combined, the downer story line resumed.
“Then again everybody is like, ‘So, is this the Olympics? Is this the same thing? Is it a curse?’ ” Shiffrin said. “And I was like, ‘No, it just happens.’ ”
Shiffrin rebounded to collect gold in the giant slalom and silvers in the slalom and Super G, running her career total to 14 medals in 17 races, a modern record and a magnificent achievement by any standard.
The World Cup record, while seemingly inevitable, had a different timeline.
“I know I’m close,” Shiffrin said, “but I think it’s important for everybody to remember that it might not happen this year.”
Winning her fifth overall title, which she wrapped up in Norway last weekend, was Shiffrin’s primary objective.
“That was like the big, big goal for me this season,” she said.
Had she not broken the career mark this weekend, Shiffrin still had four more chances at next week’s season finale in Andorra. But she got it done decisively on successive days in her best events.
“It’s hard to imagine another day happening like that,” Shiffrin mused after winning Friday’s giant slalom by more than 0.6 seconds ahead of Italy’s Federica Brignone.
But nobody was betting against her Saturday in her best race, which Shiffrin had won in five of nine outings this season.
After taking the first run by nearly 0.7 seconds, all she needed to do was stay smooth in the second, racing it as though it were a separate event on a different day.
“I did exactly that,” Shiffrin said. “And that is amazing.”
More amazing is how much time still is left to her to achieve even more. Stenmark didn’t retire until he was 32. If Shiffrin can continue to keep bone and sinew intact for another five years, she’ll post more than 100 Cup victories.
She’ll also have two more chances to increase her record haul at the world championships and a fourth Olympic opportunity in Italy.
“It’s not over yet, which is even more ridiculous,” said Shiffrin, who has made 136 Cup podiums in 246 starts. “I am just getting started.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.