PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The casual sports fan probably knows this about Mikaela Shiffrin: She’s one of the world’s best skiers.
Dive a little deeper and there’s this: She’s the reigning World Cup overall champion, she’s dominating ski racing and accumulating victories left and right, and she’s a threat to someday catch Lindsey Vonn as the women’s leader in World Cup victories, or maybe even win more than anyone else in ski racing history.
She’d like to race in all five women’s skiing events at the Winter Olympics, but isn’t sure that is doable.
“Not sure I’m going to have the energy to do that,” she said Saturday.
She’ll start out these Games by focusing on the technical events of slalom, her specialty, and giant slalom, and almost surely will race in the downhill after posting her first World Cup win in the discipline this season.
But there’s another side to the woman who could be one of the biggest stars to take the stage at the Winter Olympics in Korea. There are three aspects to her that fly below the victories and headlines and comparisons to the greats of ski racing.
She cares for fans
At the World Cup event at Killington in November, Shiffrin cited a message she received from a fan on Instagram as something that helped her deal with pressure to perform.
“I actually got a message on Instagram, a direct message from a girl who said, like, we’re not here to watch you win, we’re just here to support you, we’re just here to watch ski racing, we’re so excited, so I hope you don’t feel pressure from us. I read this message and I was, like, that made me feel so much better,” Shiffrin said.
While many professional athletes claim to be able to tune out fans, Shiffrin embraces them. She has frequently commented about hearing them roar when she is in the starting gate, seeing their reaction when she crosses the finish line, and drawing inspiration from them, whether it’s in Vermont or Austria.
One other moment at Killington also illustrated her appreciation of those who support her. At her press conference after winning the World Cup slalom race on Thanksgiving weekend, she brought a young girl onto the stage with her and presented her with the bouquet of flowers she’d received among the prizes for a victory.
The girl had been afflicted with a form of juvenile arthritis, and when Shiffrin heard her story and learned she was a fan, she decided to do something to make her feel better. It was a touching moment and a kind gesture to cap a pressure-packed weekend for Shiffrin.
She gets nervous
Not only does Shiffrin get nervous, she’s remarkably candid about having episodes of self-doubt. Consider this from 2016:
“I went through a moment where I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t do this. I was so worked up and nervous and worried about the wrong thing,” she said.
That came after winning a World Cup race.
It’s a familiar story line with Shiffrin to admit nervousness is front-and-center.
But she also has become adept at channeling nervous energy into a positive. She said Saturday that a recent stretch of misfires was due to fatigue, and that took its toll. After winning nine of 10 races from December to January, she missed the podium in her next three.
“At Lenzerheide [Switzerland], I was emotional, and crying, and frustrated, and just not really myself,” she said.
So she hit reset, arrived at PyeongChang more than a week before the Olympics, and got herself grounded before the Olympics.
“I’m feeling much, much better, much more like myself,” she said.
She’s been open about dealing with pressure.
“The mental preparation side of skiing I think is something that is actually undervalued,” she said. “I’ve experienced a lot more mental stress these last two years than I ever have. I don’t know what it was about last season, but I’ve spoken about it a lot now, I felt a lot more anxiety and started to talk to somebody, a sports psychologist, about that and I guess got back to my roots in skiing a little bit. I just reminded myself that I’m not here just for wins, but I’m here because I love the sport,” she said.
She is thoughtful
Shiffrin often refers to “my skiing” in the same way NBA players and other athletes call what they do “my craft.” She has talked about how much she likes being able to sometimes go freeskiing rather than do race training and the satisfaction and benefits that come from a less structured approach.
Obviously racing is what she does and being successful goes hand-in-hand with being prepared from a mental standpoint, but it’s also evident she takes joy in not just winning but winning in her own style.
“When I do win, normally it’s because I’m skiing really well. And the thing that gives me the most satisfaction is the skiing part of it, and feeling those really good turns, so that’s what I focus on when I get in the start gate, especially here it’s even more important,” she said.Follow Matt Pepin on Twitter @mattpep15.