Should Mikaela Shiffrin race in more speed events? The numbers say yes
Vail Daily makes sense of Ski Racing Media's analysis
VAIL — Ski Racing Media recently analyzed the advantageousness of Mikaela Shiffrin increasing her involvement in super-G and downhill events in the 2022-2023 season.
Our verdict: there is a justified “need for speed.”
In the same way Tiger Woods’ meteoric rise precluded a seemingly inevitable overtaking of Jack Nicklaus on the all-time major’s list (look how that’s going…), casual ski fans might assume Shiffrin’s surpassing of Lindsey Vonn for No. 1 on the all-time World Cup list is not only a foregone conclusion, but possibly a mid-career milestone en route to lofty three-digit totals.
While a myriad of personal issues was one precursor to Woods’ “downfall” — something perhaps unlikely to befall an athlete as stable as Shiffrin — so were injuries. Thus far, perhaps the most amazing stat for the 27-year-old Edwards’ star is that she has avoided a major injury throughout an almost 10-year career.
I would argue, however, that an even bigger problem for Woods became the elevated level of competition that his ingeniously dynamic game in large part fostered. If there is any reason Shiffrin might want to consider diversifying her race portfolio, it’s that she might have a similar issue.
Shiffrin’s generational tech-event talent has created a world every other sporting trailblazer must eventually face: a raised level of play. Her inspiring and dynamic skiing has seemingly promulgated a host of viable competitors in her specialty events. If the goal is to win more overall globes, they probably won’t be fueled by an undefeated slalom schedule anymore.
The notion that Shiffrin’s competitors are starting to do things that at one point in time only she did is not novel. Anyone listening to Ted Ligety on NBC’s broadcasts probably has noticed his gushing over Shiffrin’s abilities — only to point out that Petra Vlhova is right in step. In my conversations with former and current coaches and writers in the sport, one theme which surfaced whenever her name was mentioned was that she has raised the game for others, too.
“As a person trying to become as good as they can become, chasing Mikaela is just great,” said Cindy Nelson, a World Cup skier in the 70s and 80s, during our conversation regarding the U.S. ski team development pipeline. “The competitors will continue to improve and the team will get stronger and stronger, much because of Mikaela’s greatness.”
Nelson also recognized Shiffrin’s internal drive to self-betterment, which will have to continue burning hot if the American is to pass Vonn.
“Mikaela is at the top of the peak and she continues to improve, which is such a compliment and a statement to her greatness,” she said. “Really, really hard to continue to improve and strive to change what you’re doing and make it better when you’ve already been victorious for years. It’s hard to stay on the top once you get there, and she’s just brilliant.”
The question is, will that be enough? Sporting revolutionaries have come along in the past, advancing a strategy or technique or changing the game altogether. They reap the rewards … until others catch up or innovate themselves.
Admittedly, it’s hard to say whether Shiffrin is a true forerunner or simply a supreme talent in her prime, but when the tide rolls in with more Vlhova’s, it’s going to affect her nonetheless. The best path might be, as Ski Racing Media’s Brian Pinelli pointed out, to capitalize on her wide range of abilities.
Last year, Shiffrin bounced back from a depressing Olympics to place second at Lenzerheide’s super-G. The performance rocketed her to an eventual 184-point win over Vlhova for her fourth overall crystal globe. Her five podiums in 10 speed races — 485 points — were vital.
Pinelli noted that this accounted for 32.5% of her total points, the most of any of her four titles.
“The numbers, performances, and ‘wow factor’ make a convincing argument as to why the 27-year-old, 74-time World Cup winner should add more speed to her repertoire,” wrote Pinelli, who was able to garner input on the question from Shiffrin and her coach, Mike Day.
“My focus wasn’t really on speed this year, but then it worked out very well for these last races and that was just awesome,” the skier told Ski Racing Media shortly after being presented her fourth overall crystal globe in Meribel, France. “Of course, it’s always fun to win, but I normally find more consistency in tech and super-G, but downhill is entirely separate and takes so much time.”
Shiffrin added that her “instinct or tendency” would be to focus more on GS and slalom, as the speed events were coming easy at the end of the season.
“I love it — I find it very fun,” she said. “It’s fun to do well in speed, but it’s not fun when it’s scary and when you don’t feel comfortable going fast.”
“Everything is on the table right now — we like to go back to places that we’ve been in speed from a comfort and experience level, so we have to target the tracks that she has seen and then introduce new ones that make sense,” Day told Pinelli. “I would love to see her doing speed more consistently, but it does take away from her preparation for other events, so everything is a give and take.”
One advantage Shiffrin has is direct access to one of the best downhill skiers in the world in boyfriend Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. Before her downhill victory on March 16, both worked together to analyze the ‘Eclipse’ track in Courchevel.
“He’s skiing the course, so obviously he knows how it’s feeling … how the surface feels, and we’re talking about skiing a lot, so it’s really pretty easy for me to understand his points,” Shiffrin shared with U.S. Ski and Snowboard after the win, one of three downhill victories in her career.
“I love talking about skiing with Aleks. He’s an amazing skier, so I love to watch him and I love to talk about it with him.”
Kilde isn’t the only one in Mikaela’s corner when it comes to belief in her speed ability. Federica Brignone told Pinelli, “She could win a lot more in speed. Mikaela has the perfect technique, she has the speed, and is obviously not afraid. So, she can win, but she needs to do what is best for her and I think she has to have fun.”
Slalom and giant slalom will always be Shiffrin’s staple, and as Day hinted at, spending more time on speed means spending less time somewhere else.
“Everything is a give and take,” he told Pinelli.
Finding the right balance could be the difference between winning and losing that fifth overall globe.
In a titanic battle of 35-year-old local superstars, John Gaston outdueled Simi Hamilton on Saturday to win the fourth iteration of the Snowmass 50 mountain bike race.
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