The reindeer’s name is Sven, after the “Frozen” character, and he was given to Mikaela Shiffrin as an additional pawing prize when she won the World Cup slalom opener a fortnight ago in northern Finland.
“They bring them to the podium,” she said. “I tried to be sensitive about it, because when you come back to the States, they ask if you’ve been in contact with livestock. So I’m thinking, ‘Thanks, but can you keep it at least 10 feet away? I’d like to be able to go home.’ ”
Shiffrin didn’t need an agriculture specialist pulling her aside at US Customs and disinfecting her luggage. She’s the overall World Cup leader with a record-tying opportunity at this weekend’s stop at Killington, the Vermont resort that will host a Saturday giant slalom and Sunday slalom.
If Shiffrin wins her 10th consecutive slalom, she’ll not only match Croatia’s Janica Kostelic, who did it between 1999-2001, she’ll also increase her advantage over Lara Gut, the Swiss defending overall champion whom she leads by 80 points.
This season, her sixth full campaign, the 21-year-old Shiffrin is shooting for all the marbles, bidding to become the third American woman to win the overall crown, alongside Tamara McKinney (1983) and current teammate Lindsey Vonn (2008, ’09, ’10, ’12). To pull that off, she’ll have to double as a speed racer in the downhill and Super G.
“It’s a challenge and I definitely feed off challenges, or at least I think I do,” said Shiffrin, who spent her developmental years in New Hampshire and Vermont. “I want to be one of those people . . . I wouldn’t ever say I’m bored with the slalom, but I have the ability to do well with speed.”
By now Shiffrin has little more to prove in the slalom. She was the youngest Olympic champion (at 18) when she won in Sochi two years ago. She claimed the titles at the World Championships before and since, plus three Cup crowns.
“The only reason I’m branching out is because I’ve had some success in slalom and giant slalom,” said Shiffrin, who has won 20 slalom races on the circuit. “If I were still looking for that first podium, I’d probably be focusing on slalom and GS.”
Vonn, who piled up 65 of her record 76 Cup victories in speed races, became a talented technical competitor as well. When she won her second overall title, she was third in the slalom standings, and she was second in the giant slalom when she claimed her fourth title. Last year Gut finished first in Super G, third in GS, and fourth in downhill.
Shiffrin, the top American contender now that Vonn is sidelined with a broken arm, had planned to go after the overall crown last season but a December knee injury put her out of commission for two months and cost her a fourth slalom title.
“It threw a wrench in the works when I got injured,” said Shiffrin. “If I hadn’t, I think I could have contended for the overall. But I don’t want to think about what could have happened. It’d just drive me crazy.”
This year Shiffrin spent two weeks doing speed work in Portillo, the Chilean resort where the US team practices before the season, another week at Mammoth Mountain in California, and more of the same while training at the Colorado speed center at Copper Mountain before this weekend’s events.
Her plan is to compete in the downhill and Super G at next week’s Cup event at Lake Louise and again a couple of weeks later at Val d’Isere.
“After that, it’s play it by ear,” she said. “I don’t want to be successful in speed at the cost of the tech events.”
Yet the novelty of rapid descent has been an undeniable lure for her after years of two-run events with tight turns.
“Speed is new; it’s a breath of fresh air if I can be smart and tactical about it,” Shiffrin said. “But I’m not going into the speed races and risk life and limb.”
Going into speed races as an underdog also will be a refreshing novelty. By now everyone not only expects her to win but to win easily.
“After winning races by two seconds, when I win a race by six-10ths, people are disappointed,” said Shiffrin, whose five slalom victories last year came by a combined 10.5 seconds, an average of 2.1. “I literally can feel it.”
Her string of successes actually has made her more anxious, not less, before races.
“I am not unbeatable, I can tell you that,” she said after she won the season slalom debut at Levi. “And I think a lot of these girls know that and they’re shooting to be the first to beat me now. So every race, I have to be faster, and it’s certainly not a comfortable position.”
When she took last year’s opening slalom in Aspen by a record 3.07 seconds, she thought her rivals were sandbagging.
“I felt the rest of the World Cup circuit was playing a trick on me,” said Shiffrin, who won the next day’s race by 2.65.
What’s most unsettling to her is knowing how hard she has to push herself to win races that are all but conceded to her by onlookers.
“The way I feel about it is like what Bode Miller said a few years ago,” Shiffrin said. “I feel I have to go to a very dark place. I’m freaking out, I’m nervous, I feel like I’m going to puke. That’s a really unpleasant experience.”
One attractive thing about the downhill and Super G is that Shiffrin has no idea what it takes to stand atop those podiums.
“When Lindsey and a lot of the top speed girls race, they know,” she said.
By the end of March, Shiffrin will know much more than she does now. If she piles up enough speed points along with her usual technical haul, she could become the overall queen and begin thinking about creating a Vonn-type legacy.
“My goals are always evolving,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to be the best in the world. I wanted to be first in every event.
“If I look back in 10 years or whenever I retire, if I can say I accomplished what I set out to do when I was a little girl, if I can try to make something of my career it might actually mean something to the world . . . ”
It’s possible Shiffrin’s contribution won’t come from the slopes. Sven is her second reindeer; she was given Rudolph when she won the Cup slalom in Levi three seasons ago. Six more of them and Shiffrin will have the full yuletide set.
“I can be Santa Claus,” she mused. “I’m making children’s dreams come true. Mikaela Shiffrin is the person who made Santa Claus real.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.