“This is real sweat,” ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin says, wiping her brow with a smirk; in other words, not the fake kind she had sprayed on her torso during a morning photo shoot at 11,000 feet. It is late September in Shiffrin’s hometown of Vail, Colorado, a glorious fall day to be outside. But instead of savoring nature’s glow, Shiffrin is indoors at her local gym, the Westin Riverfront Athletic Club, powering through a set of Turkish get-ups in preparation for the Alpine World Cup season.
Four weeks from now, Shiffrin—the 21-year-old reigning Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion in slalom—will push out of the start gate at the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria.
Today’s 90-minute workout is intended to maintain her strength before the most critical winter of her career, one that could portend her future as a five-event racer. Jeff Lackie, one of two U.S. Ski Team coaches (plus one physical therapist) assigned full-time to Shiffrin, stands in front of his charge as she starts from her back and slowly rises to a standing position while holding a 25-pound dumbbell above her head.
Dressed in a blue tank top and black shorts, with makeup still plastered on her face from the shoot, Shiffrin looks more gym rat than glamour girl as she grunts and winces through her reps.
This is the Shiffrin nobody sees: the worker bee behind the flawless technique who shows up on race day and leaves even seasoned insiders struggling to qualify her domination. Ever since she broke onto the World Cup circuit at age 15, podiuming in her eighth career race (by comparison, it took Lindsey Vonn, the greatest women’s racer in history, 44 starts to earn her first podium), observers have sought to dissect how Shiffrin can possibly be so consistent, so untouchable in such a precise discipline.
There is more to it than simply time and effort, of course. Shiffrin also possesses a preternatural ability—honed since she was 6—to focus in times of stress, like when she almost crashed in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, then miraculously recovered to become the youngest Olympic slalom champion ever. Or last winter in Aspen, when she was so nervous to compete on home snow that she thought she might “quit right then and there.” Instead, she says, “I imagined every girl in the field chasing me as fast as they could go.” The result: a 3.07-second victory margin, which broke a 47-year-old World Cup record.
Still, those triumphs came in slalom, her specialty discipline and the circuit’s slowest. She won all five World Cup slalom races she entered last season—by an average margin of 2.11 seconds in a sport usually decided by hundredths. (She also missed two months with a torn MCL and fractured tibial plateau.) This year marks the beginning of her transition to an all-around skier and her first real opportunity to contend for the greatest prize in skiing: an overall World Cup title.
Not that she is thinking about trophies here in the gym. Right now, the only thing that matters is getting through this workout. More perspiration drips down her face.
She grimaces as Lackie hovers. “I’ve never puked in a workout, so Jeff’s trying to figure out how to make me do that,” she jokes between circuits.
Her casual expression belies her feigned contempt. Deep down, she is unbothered by the pain, for she knows that each bead of sweat gets her closer to her goals.
If you talk to U.S. Ski Team coaches who have worked with both Vonn, 32, and Shiffrin, they will tell you how much the two resemble each other in terms of preparation and performance. “They are so similar with absorbing and processing information, then transferring it into their run and executing,” says U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml.
In fact, if any woman is going to challenge Vonn’s all-time World Cup wins record (she entered this season with 76), many believe it will be Shiffrin, who grew up idolizing Vonn and had 20 wins at press time.
“Of course she has the potential,” Riml allows. Shiffrin is the first to admit that she must challenge for that title to take the next step in her career. Despite a stacked field that includes Vonn, defending champion Lara Gut of Switzerland, and 2015 champ Anna Veith of Austria, Shiffrin is not afraid to broach the prospect. “From when I was a little girl, my goal was to win everything, all five events, in one season,” she says.
Even in September, the lead-up to winter is frenzied. Later this week, Shiffrin will fly to Boston, Los Angeles and Denver on successive days for a mix of U.S. team fundraisers and sponsor events. Three days later she leaves for Austria. Her father, who helps manage her schedule, chuckles: “USADA [the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency] wants a schedule of where she’s gonna be three months in advance, so you just make one up and change it day to day.”
Shiffrin is a master of adapting to change. She has already worked with six U.S. coaches during her five years on the World Cup, not including her mother, whose advice still carries as much weight as anyone’s on the national team, she says. The most famous of those six, Austrian Roland Pfeifer, helped Shiffrin win Olympic gold, then was let go a year later when their progress stagnated and Shiffrin slumped.
“Before the Olympics and even through it, I felt like I was going to be working with Roland for the rest of my career,” Shiffrin says. “I had a lot to work on and improve upon, but then it seemed like we both ran out of room to improve together.”
Even the best in the world must continue to evolve, which is what brings Shiffrin to the squat rack at the Westin. She has put on five pounds of muscle since last season, upping her weight to 150, and it shows in her strength.
She pumps out five reps with 225 pounds on her shoulders, then waits for Lackie to check how fast she lifted the weight, as measured by something called a linear position transducer. The instrument includes a string that runs from the bar to a black box at Shiffrin’s feet, which then spits out data on a separate screen.
As Lackie explains, squats alone are not specific to skiing, but squats done at a certain speed are. Shiffrin raises 225 pounds a fraction too slowly—an average of .51 meters per second, on the low end of Lackie’s target range. She drops down to 185, which she lifts too fast. Five reps at 195; still too fast. Finally, after five reps at 205 pounds, the screen reads .53—perfect.
As Shiffrin leaves the room and heads to her next station, she passes a 10-foot-wide poster with her photograph on it, declaring the gym to be “home of resident gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin.”
Is it cool to see herself on the wall every time she works out? “I don’t usually look at it,” she says.
Despite Shiffrin’s drive to win a World Cup overall title, she does not plan to enter every downhill and super-G race this season. Instead, she will ease into the speed disciplines as her technical schedule and stamina allow, with the priorities still being to win the slalom and GS season titles.
She has finished two super-Gs in the past, placing 15th and 29th, but has never entered a downhill. In September, however, both she and Lackie said she was more comfortable and skiing faster on speed tracks—which exact much greater forces and send racers into turns at 70 mph—than she ever had in the past.
Given Shiffrin’s unending devotion, it can be easy to assume she is missing out on a world beyond ski racing. She still lives with her parents in the house where she grew up, takes a daily afternoon nap between training sessions (hence one of her nicknames, “Sir Naps A Lot”) and rarely stays out later than 9 p.m. On her 21st birthday last March, she had a glass of champagne at a team dinner in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, then watched a movie at her hotel. “It’s just an individual thing,” she says of her lifestyle.
The roots of her choices inevitably lead back to ski racing. Take Shiffrin’s theory on luck versus preparation. “Everybody is always relying on luck,” she says. “And I don’t really believe that works. You need a little luck—like good visibility and weather—but at the end of the day, I’ve found that pretty much every race I’m prepared for, I win.”
When she doesn’t win, Shiffrin can stew for up to a week. She is not immune to the weight of expectations, she says. To ensure optimal performance on race day, she has broken down every possible problem—from sluggishness to nausea to nerves—and tested a range of remedies to see how each affects her. Much more than any genetic advantage, Shiffrin believes the key to success, even on the elite level, is available to anyone.
“When you read all those books out there talking about practice, I’m starting to realize that maybe talent doesn’t even exist,” she says.
At the end of her workout in September, Shiffrin is doubled over in exhaustion. The sight brings to mind something she said earlier, addressing people’s incessant quest to replicate her success instead of creating their own. “I still don’t think there is a winning formula,” she says. “It’s really just working your butt off.”