She remembers a year of crying herself to sleep missing her home in the wide open Rocky Mountain paradise of Vail, Colo., where the sun shines most days and the snow is soft.
Now she found herself in New England, where winter life is colder and darker, where tree-lined trails switch back down a crusty front. Where skiers learn to deal with ice.
But by some mysterious mix of talent, coaching, hard work, and yes, that bony Eastern ice, 17-year-old Burke Mountain Academy senior Mikaela Shiffrin burst onto the World Cup scene this season as no one her age ever has before.
Shiffrin is the youngest American ever to win two World Cup races in a season, and there is a chance that her hot technical skiing and cool nerves could well put her in position to win a World Cup title in slalom.
She won her first World Cup race just after Christmas in a night slalom in Are, Sweden, then repeated Jan. 4 in Zagreb, Croatia, where she beat the field by a whopping 1.19 seconds before a large night crowd. The finish won her the title of Snow Queen and a payday of $55,000.
And while her skiing on the junior level had her on everybody’s list of rising stars, her own list of goals goes back even further. In fact, her first World Cup success, rather than surprising her, only fulfilled “goals I set for myself when I was 7 years old.”
Speaking by telephone from Austria, where she was preparing for weekend events at St. Anton, Shiffrin explained her ski racing.
“Í try to keep it simple,” she said. “I try to just focus on my skiing and skiing fast. I try to have fun and focus just on skiing, but I also like to win. When I won my first slalom [in Are], I think I got a little distracted, but I got back to just skiing and I won the next race.”
She started skiing as a youngster in Vail, but when her father, Jeff, took a job as an anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, Shiffrin enrolled at Burke Mountain Academy, a high school for skiers and snowboarders in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It took her a while to get reoriented in the East, but in time, she said, “Suddenly I really was loving the East Coast and skiing there. And the snow is harder.”
Though her family has returned to Vail, Shiffrin plans to march with her graduating class at Burke in June.
Hard snow is only one factor that draws her to a region she considers beautiful.
“Hard snow is definitely faster, and I love skiing on it,” she said. “Wax is not a big deal, so whoever can arc a sweet turn is going to be fast. And obviously when you ski down an icy slope you get down fast, where powder and softer snow slows you down. I’ve always liked to ski on challenging conditions.”
What makes Shiffrin the phenom she is this early season is harder to pin down. Her coach, Roland Pfeifer, a former Austrian racer and coach, points to early training in the fundamentals.
“Somewhere between 5 and 10 years old she has had a very good education on the right way to ski,” Pfeifer said, also speaking by phone from Austria. “Somebody showed her how to ski upright with her weight forward, with a very calm upper body and the upper body and lower body moving independently. So she was always technically a very, very good skier. The only thing I have done is teach her to ski with more aggressiveness and power.”
Indeed, in her second run in the Zagreb slalom, the course had become very chopped and rutty, but video of Shiffrin’s run shows the same unfazed, smooth style that characterizes most of her races.
To Carrie Sheinberg, a former US technical racer who competed in the 1994 Olympics in Lillihammer, Norway, it is Shiffrin’s mental command that is most impressive.
“A lot of girls these days are physically mature earlier, and many of them have good technical skills. But to watch her ski and stay so calm on the snow, her mind-body connection is amazing,” said Sheinberg, who also learned to ski at Vermont Academy, and now lives in Somerville, where she is raising a family. “She’s amazingly quiet and smooth, from her head right down to her toes.”
To Shiffrin, who grew up idolizing Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, hers is far from the go-for-broke, win-or-crash style touted by a fair number of ski racers.
“That’s just not the way I ski,” she said. “I think skiing technique has changed so much. It’s not just skiing around gates, you have to work to get the top of the turn, then break down every part of the turn to find the fastest way. I also know when to take my foot off the gas a bit when that’s needed. Keeps me from getting hurt.”
According to Kirk Dwyer, who coached her at Burke, Shiffrin probably owes her solid fundamentals to her mother, Eileen, who raced on a master’s circuit when Mikaela was little. Her parents instilled self-discipline from an early age.
“She has this personal humility that tells her that great skiing does not make someone a superior person,” said Dwyer. “I’ve seen lots of talented young ski racers, but I’ve never worked with anyone who has such consistency. She has such patience, and the kind of focus that lets her see just one step ahead of where she is. That’s how she progresses.”
And progress for Shiffrin, who enters her next event with a 336-312 points lead in slalom over Croatia’s Veronika Velez Zuzulova, means becoming a four-event skier, with the addition of the speed disciplines downhill and Super-G. But while Shiffrin talks about progressing into speed eagerly, Pfeifer advises not moving too fast.
“She is so talented that she will someday ski all four events,” he said. “She is a very hard worker and she will be an accomplished downhiller, but I don’t at this point know when. As her coach, I don’t want her to push too early and risk getting her hurt.”
Shiffrin insists she loves speed events, though her sense of discipline brings her back to the idea of improving technical skiing as far as she can. Yes, a title would be great, she said, but many competitors have a shot at this point, and she wants to remain focused on the essence of skiing. This leads to her description of “the zone,” in which one feels nearly invulnerable on skis.
“I was in the zone [during the Zagreb slalom],” she said. “It felt like you’re skiing well, but then suddenly you feel almost unstoppable.”
And judging from the assurance with which the teenager has taken hold of this season’s World Cup slalom, “unstoppable” may be the word that describes her best.