Mikaela Shiffrin entered the starting gates trailing by a little more than half a second on the last run of her final slalom race before the 2022 Beijing Olympics. A challenging past few months had compounded an agonizing few years since Pyeongchang, a stretch of time so disorienting that America’s preeminent alpine skier, a blur of precision and power and poise, says she still has moments when she forgets how to walk.
A back injury stalled her training in October and lingered for weeks. Then, as she was finding her form, Shiffrin tested positive for COVID-19 in late December, which forced her to miss a crucial World Cup event and spend nine days in quarantine. Two days before this race in Schladming, Austria, Shiffrin had failed to finish a slalom for the first time in nearly four years and watched her stiffest competition, Slovak skier Petra Vlhová, continue a seasonlong tear that included five slalom victories in seven World Cup starts and a new status as favorite heading into Beijing.
At 26, Shiffrin is the winningest slalom skier — male or female — of all time. But as she steadied herself between the gates, Shiffrin trailed Vlhová by 240 points in the season slalom standings and ranked fifth in the field after her first run; she hadn’t missed the podium in consecutive World Cup slaloms since she was a teenager. That possibility, less than four weeks before the Olympic opening ceremonies, hung in the air as she dug her neon-handled sticks into the snow.
Shiffrin bounded onto an aggressive line out of the starting gate and sliced her way down the Austrian slope, winding through each of the 55 gates. “If anyone can find half a second out there, it is Mikaela,” the broadcaster said. Slalom skiing is an angular sprint of a sport that takes roughly 90 seconds to complete. As Shiffrin descended, the broadcast described her rhythm as “beautiful,” adding “She is spectacular.”
By the time she crossed the finish line, she had gained a full 1.05 seconds on her competition in a sport with fraction-of-a-second margins. It was the 47th World Cup slalom victory of Shiffrin’s career, breaking a tie with Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark for the most all-time wins in a discipline.
The winner’s circle has become the standard for the Coloradoan. Shiffrin has won 73 World Cup races (second most by any American woman), six world championships (most) and two Olympic gold medals (tied for most). She is the youngest-ever Olympic slalom champion, the only skier to win gold medals at five consecutive worlds and the most decorated American alpine skier in history. In five career Olympic starts, she has reached the podium three times and won twice. “Mikaela’s the best I’ve ever seen, male or female, in a few different categories,” said Bode Miller, the greatest U.S. men’s alpine skier of all time. “She can do whatever she wants.”
It would take an act of divine intervention for Shiffrin to not eventually surpass Stenmark’s all-time record of 86 World Cup victories and depart the sport as the GOAT of alpine skiing. But if she retired tomorrow, Shiffrin would already be ranked among the three best female skiers since the World Cup circuit was launched in 1966, according to Ski-DB.com’s “super ranking” system, which computes points for finishes in World Cup races, the World Championships and the Winter Olympics. Only Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll and FiveThirtyEight favorite Lindsey Vonn rank higher than Shiffrin in the metric.
It’s been an arduous and heart-wrenching road since the 2018 Olympics for the most celebrated active skier in the world. Shiffrin’s father died unexpectedly in 2020, which led to her 300-day layoff from the sport. When Shiffrin returned to competition, her 13 World Cup podiums in 2020 were eight fewer than the previous season, and she followed that up with even fewer in 2021. She won a combined nine races in 2020 and 2021, eight fewer than she had won in 2019 alone. Criticism poured in. What happened to the athlete who once devoured a slalom by 3.07 seconds, the largest margin of victory in the discipline in nearly half a century?
Claims that Shiffrin has lost a ski-propelled step are rapidly losing steam as Shiffrin once again sits atop the Alpine World Cup overall standings, her first No. 1 ranking since 2019. She ranks second in slalom, third in giant slalom and fifth in super-G, the second-highest ranking for that discipline in her career.
But even an athlete like Shiffrin, who has conquered mountains and competitions around the world, has untrodden snow to carve.
At the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Shiffrin plans to compete in all five individual Alpine ski races: giant slalom, slalom, super-G, downhill and combined (a mix of slalom and downhill). Like American greats Vonn and Miller, Shiffrin will attempt the feat for the first time in her third Games. Though because of the pandemic, Shiffrin will not have the luxury of having previously skied the course (which she did in the previous two Olympics).
Comprehensive dominance is a rarity on the slopes. In a sport ripe with specialization, time apportioned for speed training is time lost in other areas, like technique. “There really are a handful of people that can win in all disciplines in a single year, and that’s over the history of the sport, not just the last decade,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said. “It’s harder to do today than it’s ever been.”
Each race consists of varying lengths, grades and velocities. Skiers are propelled 25 mph in the slalom (the shortest and slowest of the races) but north of 80 mph in the downhill (the longest and fastest). Shiffrin’s dominance in shorter, technical events like the slalom and giant slalom is without question; she’s the winningest slalom skier of all time and the winningest American woman skier of all time in giant slalom. But she has also found success at the longer disciplines like super-G (four World Cup victories) and combined (one), and has focused on speed events since her return to the sport.
Shiffrin has raced in every World Cup discipline this season, reaching the podium twice in super-G (though she placed 16th in her most recent race). Her November podium at St. Moritz, Switzerland, was her first in a speed race in nearly two years.
No skier has entered all five disciplines and secured more than three total medals. Skiers who have taken on such a workload have never won more than two gold medals at a single Games. If there’s a sign for optimism in the Shiffrin camp, it’s that she’s already a gold medalist in two of the events and, as NBC Sports’s Nick Zaccardi noted, she won two golds and a bronze in her three events at 2019 worlds, a better medal haul than any skier has garnered from doing five at an Olympics.
All-time best territory is within reach for Shiffrin in the coming weeks as she contends for what could be a gold medal in three consecutive Games. She’s just three medals shy of the all-time record for career medals, which is held by Janica Kostelić of Croatia and Anja Pärson of Sweden. All of that is possible for Shiffrin, who has built a career on reinvention as she continues to search for a faster way down the mountain.