Ten years ago, Mikaela Shiffrin, a 17-year-old high school student, won her first World Cup ski race. Standing at the bottom of the course in Sweden as her name flashed atop the scoreboard standings, she had an expression of unmitigated disbelief.
This week in Austria, Shiffrin won World Cup races in three consecutive days to boost her career victory total to 80. With three months remaining this season, she is only two victories behind Lindsey Vonn’s women’s record for career victories and in reach of the all-time record of 86 Alpine World Cup wins set by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.
On Friday, Shiffrin described how she would have reacted on that 2012 night in Sweden if she had been told she would have 80 victories a decade later.
“I would not have believed it, and I’m grateful to still be in disbelief after 80 victories,” she said in a video interview. “I’ve preferred to live my whole career in disbelief of whatever has been accomplished. It keeps you working because I still feel like it’s not real.
“And it’s way more exciting to be constantly in disbelief than expecting to win. That never works anyway.”
At 27, Shiffrin, the wunderkind who is also the rare ski racer to avoid serious injury, is on a path that could obliterate a multitude of World Cup records. Versatile and durable — she is the only racer with victories in each of the six World Cup disciplines (slalom, downhill, super-G, giant slalom, combined and parallel) — Shiffrin has won nearly 35 percent of the 230 races she has entered. If Shiffrin races six more seasons (Vonn ended her last full season at 33) and wins at even half the victory pace she has set in the last decade, she would win 104 World Cup races.
That feat would be roughly equivalent to someone breaking Barry Bonds’s major league career home run record of 762 by hitting 922 home runs.
Shiffrin is not familiar with many sports records outside of ski racing other than tennis, one of her off-season pursuits.
“So I haven’t done the math,” she said with a laugh when told of the Bonds comparison. “But I do realize that the likelihood of anyone getting to where I’ve gotten in my career, it just takes so many things to align just right. Especially in ski racing where there are so many variables outside your control. You need spectacular coaches, the right equipment, ski service, the right weather and years of hard work. And then you still have to show up on a race day that is a nine-hour ball of stress and nerves and somehow make it happen in the two minutes you’re actually racing.
“I don’t know how anybody has ever gotten to 80 victories, let alone three of us. If I think about it too much, I might start crying. Because it’s hard. And yet, sometimes it goes right. And for me, it’s happened. Like a lot. And I’m not sure why.”
In the 10 months since she fell in three races at the Beijing Olympics and shockingly did not add to her total of three Olympic medals, Shiffrin rebounded by winning her fourth overall World Cup title. Only three ski racers have won more. As she concluded that season, and for months afterward, Shiffrin gave countless interviews trying to explain what went wrong in Beijing. She never truly found a complete answer, but some time this summer while training in the winter conditions of Chile she concluded this much: “I’ve dissected Beijing and said just about everything I can say about those Olympics.”
This fall, Shiffrin launched a YouTube series called “Moving Right Along.”
The title summarizes her post-Olympics perspective and may signal how Shiffrin has overpowered a new ski-racing season with six victories in 12 races, including four wins since Dec. 18.
“The Olympics feel so long ago now,” Shiffrin said Friday. “I’m not forgetting them, I acknowledge it, but then you move forward. It is the same with my victories or my records; I don’t think that dwelling on things is good, healthy or productive.
“So, yeah, moving right along. And I had a lot of great off-season training thinking about that motto for life.”
Shiffrin concedes that the approach may have contributed to her blazing start on the World Cup.
“Your mind is kind of clear, and at the same time it feels like the fans have been so significantly supportive this year,” she said. “I walked through a crowd to get to the gondola on Thursday, and every single person said something encouraging about how I was going to win three in a row and get closer to the record.
“I know people are excited about the record, and I appreciate that.”
Shiffrin said she has somewhat recalibrated her attitude as she prepares to push out of the start gate. That new perspective may not bode well for opponents trying to keep her from the all-time victory record.
“Yesterday, I was not thinking about any records, I was just trying to make the absolute fastest turns at every gate for however long I could do it,” she said. “If I made a mistake, I didn’t care. If it throws me off the course, I don’t care.
“Of course, I’d be disappointed, but it’s my only chance to win the race. So, you know, there was a lesson in that. Because it worked, like the stars aligned.”