As a ski racer, Mikaela Shiffrin is rapidly maturing. Off the slopes, the American still giggles like any other 17-year-old girl.
Her fresh and carefree attitude has kept her grounded in her breakthrough World Cup season, highlighted by her second career victory at Friday’s night slalom.
The triumph sent her top of the slalom standings and made her the first American to win two World Cup races before turning 18. No wonder she’s laughing a lot.
“I am just trying to find the edge of what I can ski,” Shiffrin said. “I am having a very good year. I am very excited about it and I am always hungry for more ... I am really happy and I know anything can happen.”
Voted World Cup Rookie of the Year last season by her peers, Shiffrin has lived up to expectations. In 12 races so far, she won twice and recorded six more top-10 finishes.
Along with the victories have come the limelight, but Shiffrin is determined to not let it get to her head.
“I am still going to do the same thing,” she said. “I have to remember that I am only 17 and I feel like a baby sometimes and I don’t hide that.”
Traveling the circuit in company of her mother Eileen makes Shiffrin feel at peace.
“I have always wanted to sleep really deeply and not really worry,” Shiffrin said. “I know that some things are going to work and turn out fine. It’s not the end of the world.”
The same approach has helped her to keep a positive mind on the slopes.
Just a week after earning her first World Cup victory in Are, Sweden, and going top of the slalom standings, all eyes were on Shiffrin at a night event in Semmering, Austria, the last race of last year.
The American was fourth after the opening leg, but failed to finish after straddling a gate soon in her final run.
“A lot of times there is pressure. In Semmering I didn’t deal with it very well,” she said. “I think it was good to go out in Semmering, it brought me back down to earth ... There is always a next race coming up very soon. I know I will have some mistakes and some bad races, but in general every experience counts.”
Shiffrin reclaimed top spot in the slalom standings with her win in Zagreb. She is now even ahead of Lindsey Vonn as the top American in the overall standings — although Vonn just returned to training after a month-long break to get over an intestinal illness.
World champion Marlies Schild has dominated women’s slalom for many years but the Austrian is out for the season after knee surgery, leaving the fight for the discipline title wide open.
After six races Shiffrin has 336 points, followed by overall World Cup leader Tina Maze of Slovenia with 310 and Veronika Velez Zuzulova of Slovakia with 305.
“It’s still so far away, there is still a couple of races and a lot more training days,” Shiffrin said. “I just have to stay in the moment because that’s what’s working so far and what keeps me grounded. It’s definitely one of my goals but it will be difficult to hold on to this bib.”
US women’s technical head coach Roland Pfeifer has been impressed with Shiffrin’s improvement in her second year at top-level racing.
“She is progressing rapidly,” said Pfeifer said, who is looking forward to seeing what Shiffrin can do at next month’s world championships. “I’d say it’s really promising on the way to Schladming.”
Apart from peaking in slalom, Shiffrin has racked up three top-10 finishes in giant slalom this season. And it’s just a matter of time before she will start entering the speed events — super-Gs and downhills.
“I am definitely going to move into speed, I love it,” Shiffrin said. “I trained a little bit of speed this past summer, it’s so fun and I feel really good on the long boards. But I am trying to be just patient. I am going to take it slow. When I feel like my technique is really dialed in and I am comfortable going fast, I will go fast.’’