Not content with blazing a trail to becoming the greatest skier of all time, Mikaela Shiffrin is going off piste to address issues of gender pay inequality in sport too. In this exclusive interview with Pete Sharland, she explains what motivates her to speak up.
It’s easier to say nothing.
When you’re a professional athlete, one at the very top of your sport, you have a platform. You’re someone that people look up to. Listen to. But you have no obligation to use that platform. Some people just want a quiet life. Some people just do not care enough about the myriad issues facing society today. Besides, it’s not as simple as just talking about an issue. There are hundreds of potential complications behind the scenes of the life of a professional athlete that the rest of us never get to see, but can influence whether you decide to speak up or not. Yet the platform will always be there. Waiting for you if you change your mind.
And isn’t it worth saying something? Particularly when your voice can be heard by thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions. For Alpine skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, it is worth it.
Shiffrin is the type of generational talent that comes along once in a blue moon, the sort of athlete who rewrites every page of the record books and changes the very perception of their sport. Last season she won an astonishing four Crystal Globes, the trophies handed out for the winners of each discipline within Alpine skiing. Shiffrin finished top of the Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super-G and the Overall standings, the first skier to ever achieve this set. During 2018-19 she won 17 World Cup races, the highest tally ever in a single season. She is also the youngest skier to ever reach 50 World Cup wins. Her current tally is 66, the fourth-highest of all time. Oh, and she’s still only 24. It’s scary to think what these numbers might be when she eventually retires.
Aside from forging a path to becoming the greatest skier ever, Shiffrin is also a pioneer for gender pay equality. In a world that is still so heavily, and unfairly, skewed towards men in so many walks of life, Shiffrin stands tall and proud within a sport that pays equally. But Shiffrin hasn’t stayed quiet. She has relentlessly championed skiing, in turn highlighting the shortcomings of so many other sports.
On the slopes, Alpine skiing has had to cope with the retirement of a number of legendary athletes over the past few seasons, notably Aksel Lund Svindal, Shiffrin’s compatriot Lindsey Vonn and most recently Marcel Hirscher – all in 2019 alone. The responsibility of being the face of the sport now rests on Shiffrin more than ever before. Yet she hasn’t shirked that responsibility. And while her star grows, she hasn’t let anything slip on snow and remains the skier to beat on the circuit. That fire has been burning for a long time.
1. I’m Mikaela Shiffrin and I’m a slalom skier
Overall FIS Alpine ski Super G 's winner US Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates as she holds the crystal globe trophy during the podium ceremony after competing in the Women's Super G race during the FIS Alpine ski world cup championship on March 14, 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
Born in Colorado in 1995, Shiffrin is the daughter of two former ski racers, Eileen and Jeff, but her older brother, Taylor, was the first to follow in the family tradition. The youngest Shiffrin would join him at the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, where her skills were honed and the hype started to grow.
Shiffrin was your archetypal prodigy, someone who even from a young age had people whispering about her enormous talent. It wasn’t long before they were talking out loud about a young girl recording speeds people hadn’t seen before at her age, a relentless winning machine. In fact the only thing that stood in Shiffrin’s way as a teenager was red tape. The Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) has strict rules on competitors’ ages so Shiffrin couldn’t make her debut on the Nor-Am circuit, one level below the World Cup, until she was 15. But the wait couldn’t slow her down.
Once old enough, Shiffrin blew away the more experienced competition on the Nor-Am scene and before too long she made her World Cup debut in March 2011 at Spindleruv Mlyn, a couple of weeks before she turned 16. From that point she didn’t look back. She joined the US World Cup squad for the following season and secured her first World Cup medal in December 2011, a bronze in the slalom at Lienz. A year later in Are, a 17-year-old Shiffrin won her first race, slalom again. That season she won the first of her six slalom titles. She went from prodigy to superstar in the blink of an eye.
I’m a skier and I always identified as a ski racer before everything else
For Shiffrin, a career on skis was never in question, despite what a video, filmed by her mother, showing a young Shiffrin on ice skates may have suggested. “I honestly never even made a decision.” Shiffrin explains when she sits down with Eurosport. “I was pretty good at soccer for a while and I remember when I was around 12 or 13 my soccer coach said you should try out for the ODP (Olympic Development Program) and feeder into the national team. And I said, ‘what do you mean?’ I’m a skier and I always identified as a ski racer before everything else. It wasn’t even a decision. That was a thing I was always dreaming about and everything else I had fun doing. I love sports but I’m a skier, that’s what I always tell people.”
And of course when it comes to US skiers, or indeed skiing as a whole, one name will always stand out: Lindsey Vonn. The three-time Olympic medallist, who retired earlier this year, was supposed to be the one to break Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup wins. Were it not for her chronic injuries there is no doubt she would have done that, but Vonn fell just short with 82.
Vonn was a truly exceptional skier. One of the greatest of all time. But it’s worth indulging in a side-by-side comparison of Vonn and Shiffrin, if only to try to highlight the absurdity that is the younger American. Vonn was 23 when she won her first World Cup title, 24 when she won her first world title and 25 when claiming her first, and only, Olympic gold. By contrast Shiffrin was 18, 17 and 18 respectively when she passed the same landmarks.
Almost unbelievably, she was an Olympic and double world champion long before she could legally drink in the US. It’s a staggering achievement and Shiffrin hasn’t stopped since then, putting together a body of work that belies any skier in history, let alone a 24-year-old. But then again, Mikaela Shiffrin isn’t just any skier.
2. The Queen of snow plays by her rules
Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States competes during the first run of the giant slalom at the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Killington Cup
Image credit: Getty Images
The strange thing about era-defining athletes is their ability to go up to a gear that you didn’t even know existed. Think about it. These are competitors who succeed in constructing a career that puts them so far above their peers, and the rest of us mere mortals, that it’s almost a joke. Yet somehow they have these even more extraordinary periods where their talent seems to go stratospheric. Their dominance goes to such a level that the rest of the pack have no clue what to do. That’s what Shiffrin did last season.
In 2018-19, Shiffrin transcended to a whole new plane. To go with her third Overall and Slalom double in a row she added the Giant Slalom and, for the first time, Super-G titles. It was an unparalleled quadruple in a season that also saw her take home two World Championships golds in Are. Oh, and there was the small matter of 17 World Cup wins, smashing the previous record of 14 in a season.
“Interestingly, it definitely wasn’t a year where everything went right.” Shiffrin says. "It almost felt like everything went wrong at every turn but we were all able to manage that well."
Shiffrin puts great stock in who she surrounds herself with. Shiffrin’s mother Eileen had been a part of her entourage since she made her World Cup debut. However, following the recent death of her grandmother, Mikaela and Eileen decided that the latter would step aside to focus on the other parts of her life.
Shiffrin: If I was only motivated by results, I'd have stopped a while ago
“We sat and talked a lot about family and being home, and regrets really,” Shiffrin told the New York Times ahead of the World Cup meet at Killington recently. “We felt like it was important for her to get back to her life. But it’s not easy for either of us. People have asked me, ‘What’s your secret?’ Well, it’s my mom. Isn’t it obvious? She was the advantage I had that no one else had, and she gave me that edge over everyone else. But I felt like I couldn’t ask her to do it anymore.”
Family’ has had a major influence on Shiffrin’s progression to the top. “I’ve had the chance to train with her a few times and I know her team quite well,” British number one Dave Ryding tells Eurosport as he discusses Shiffrin and her set-up. “The attention to detail, the striving to succeed, the daily routine: they are better than the rest at that as well [on skis]... She’s a class act, she’s so good.”
The sudden death of Shiffrin's father Jeff towards the end of the season caught the entire skiing world off-guard, and the outpouring of emotion and support for the Shiffrin family only demonstrated the regard with which Jeff was held.
For Shiffrin family was her first, and only thought, withdrawing from racing as she and those around came to grips with the tragedy that had befallen her family.
When she finally planned to make her return, the final weekend of the season at Are, she still had a chance to claim the Crystal Globe, so good where her performances earlier in the season. But it was taken out of her hands when the outbreak of the coronavirus forced an early end to the season, making Federica Brignone the first female Italian Crystal Globe winner.
Yet Shiffrin hadnled herself with the good grace and dignity you would expect.
Such is her mental fortitude, and that in part comes from the structure she has put around her. That structure, as well as her level-headedness, gives her the platform required to achieve the remarkable. And what was perhaps most remarkable about her performances last season was what she did in Super-G.
Mikaela is the best skier in recent years, technically she’s perfect
Shiffrin was coming off the back of successive slalom titles, while she had placed in the top three in giant slalom in the last two years as well, so her success in her regular disciplines wasn’t too much of a surprise. However, in Super-G the previous season, Shiffrin finished 28th in the standings; before last year she’d never even won a race. But this is a skier who was the first in history to win a World Cup race in six different disciplines. That is what special looks like.
Shiffrin would be the first tell you that she had a little luck with a number of cancellations of races she skipped in Super-G last season - but she proved it was no fluke when she won gold at the World Championships in Are. “Mikaela is the best skier in recent years, technically she’s perfect,” says Sofia Goggia, the speed discipline expert who finished second behind Shiffrin in Sweden. “She can ski at 80% of her maximum but she never commits a mistake. This is what gives her an advantage over the rest of us. Sometimes we can beat her but sometimes she’s on another planet entirely.”
Most skiers will pick either speed (Super-G and downhill) or technical (slalom and giant slalom) disciplines to focus on, sometimes even specialising within that. It’s rare to see athletes combine them, it’s even rarer to see an athlete dominate across the board. Shiffrin touches upon this issue when the topic of Ester Ledecka comes up. Czech skier/snowboarder Ledecka produced one of the most historic moments in all of sport during the 2018 Winter Olympics when she became the first person ever to win two golds using two different types of equipment in one Games when she triumphed in the Super-G and the parallel giant slalom.
Traditionally more of a snowboarder, Ledecka wasn’t expecting to even be in the top 10 or 15 when she picked up a pair of Shiffrin’s skis ahead of the Super-G. When she reached the finish line nobody could believe what they had just witnessed, let alone Ledecka. To continue her legend, Ledecka recently won her first Alpine skiing World Cup event, the downhill at Lake Louise. Born ten days and over 5,000 miles apart, both Shiffrin and Ledecka are astonishing athletes and the mutual respect is overwhelming.
“It’s amazing to know her as a person because she’s a great girl.” Ledecka tells Eurosport. “She’s always very friendly with me which is nice because I’m on a completely different level with skiing. I think she’s one of the best skiers, maybe the best ever on the women’s side and it’s always very nice to watch her videos. We do a lot of that with my coaches, we are looking at her style and learning from her because she has something between women’s and men’s style. She’s really fast and she skis super good. I’m trying to learn from people like her and Marcel Hirscher.”
That feeling certainly goes both ways. “I think she’s hilarious and super-cool and really great at both sports.” Shiffrin says with a huge smile when Ledecka is mentioned. “In a way people assume you’re supposed to fit into one category or one box and that’s all your allowed to do, how dare you think you could do more than that. I’ve faced that when I talk about racing multiple disciplines and venturing into speed and having success. People say you’re not supposed to do that, you’re a slalom skier.”
Shiffrin is not just a slalom skier, and she is not content to just stay in her box.
3. Why should it be so hard?
In June, Forbes published their annual list of the highest paid athletes of the year. Lionel Messi came top with earnings of $127m, closely followed by Cristiano Ronaldo, who earned $109m, and Neymar, who raked in $105m. How many women made the top 10? Well, none actually. How many reached the top 50? Again, none. Incredibly, the only woman who appeared on the list at all was the greatest tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, whose annual earnings of $29.2m saw her in at number 62, joint with baseball star Miguel Cabrera. In 2019, the shocking fact of the matter is that 99% of the highest earning sportspeople in the world were men.
“The fact that there’s one in 100 is sort of, like, seriously?” says Shiffrin with an exasperated look on her face. “That single statement is really frustrating but I know there’s a lot of detail that goes into that statement. So it’s not like we can get 50 female athletes and start paying them more. I don’t know what the men in that list are doing in order to have the marketability or if their marketability really represents what they’re getting paid or vice versa versus the Serena Williams of the women’s sport industry. But you’re sort of like, ‘seriously, come on’. Because I know there are plenty of people out there who want to watch women’s sports and will support the female athletes more than the men, so it’s frustrating.”
Plenty of people are watching Shiffrin. Her success saw her reach another milestone in 2019 when she became the first skier, male or female, to cross the landmark figure of one million Swiss francs in annual prize money. Not only did Shiffrin dominate the women’s money list in 2019 (over double the amount of her closest competitor Petra Vlhova) but she was well clear of the men’s leader Hirscher, who finished with 565,111 CHF.
Shiffrin on gender pay gap: I'm frustrated for girls in other sports
That Shiffrin was able to do so speaks to the parity within skiing, where equal pay has long been the norm. She didn’t even have to think about whether she was being paid fairly compared to her male counterparts. She could just focus on her work and for Shiffrin that’s the most important thing. “It’s just incredible to be able to have that opportunity and to be able to, in a way, let my skiing speak for itself and earn what it should earn.” Shiffrin says. “Because I’m in a sport where the prize money is equal I haven’t really had to think about that a lot.”
British skier Charlie Guest echoes Shiffrin’s comments. “People always ask me about gender equality in sport and I have to say with ski racing I barely ever felt at a disadvantage because I’m a woman,” Guest tells Eurosport. “It’s a fantastic sport, coverage is equal, pay is equal. That is so important.”
I’m frustrated for other girls in other sports... hopefully the more it’s talked about the more balanced out it’s going to get
Sadly that’s not the case worldwide. After years of workplace inequality, conversations are finally being had about why women aren’t being treated the same as men for the same body of work. According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, on average there is a still a gender gap of 31.4% across the four sub-indexes in which the report is measured: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. The report also says that based on current trends the gender gap will close in 99.5 years. However, the biggest contributing number to that overall average is the individual figure for the economic participation and opportunity sub-index. That particular gap will close in 257 years based on the current trends.
It is a shocking revelation and one which clearly shows that despite the progress being made there is still so much more to do within society. Sport is no different. Given the parity which exists in Alpine skiing, Shiffrin hasn’t had to fight the same battles and she is grateful for that. But she is more than aware of the issues outside of her own sport and it frustrates her to see women putting in as much work as her, but not receiving the same rewards.
“It’s certainly been a huge hot topic of discussion, especially this past year or so," she says. "I thought about it a lot more, thinking about how grateful I really should be that that is an opportunity for me because there are so many women out there who are putting a ton of work into their sport and don’t have any sort of pay/revenue to show for it. When I put myself in their shoes, it's really tough because you’re just beating your head against the wall. I’m frustrated for other girls in other sports but I’m super, super grateful to be in the position I’m in and hopefully the more it’s talked about the more balanced out it’s going to get.”
And Shiffrin is certainly talking about it. Crossing the one million Swiss Francs mark felt like a landmark moment both for Shiffrin and the movement that she is starting to create, and among the countless spots and interviews that came after this achievement, she appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in March. The interview is the perfect encapsulation of Shiffrin. In a six-minute appearance she discusses her teenage fashion choices, teaches Fallon to shuffle dance (as well as give out a ski tip or two) and gets serious about the gender pay discussion and the equality within skiing, which brings a raucous reaction from the crowd.
This is what is so impressive about Shiffrin. Her star has risen so high that she has the ability to command lucrative sponsorship deals and media appearances - but she isn’t just settling for that. She’s using her platform to raise awareness of the inequality in the world and, as a point of contrast, the relative equality of skiing. The more Shiffrin wins, the more she can talk, the more her brand grows, the more her message will be heard. As more and more people realise that there is a top-level sport out there with pay parity there will come greater pressure for others to follow suit.
The US women’s football team have been one of the leading voices in this fight, launching a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation ahead of the Women's World Cup, which they won for a record fourth time. Megan Rapinoe has been one of the most vocal critics of the unequal system, recently telling the BBC that women, “shouldn’t settle for anything less. Go for equal, go for more, don't accept any of these sort of antiquated and BS answers. Especially when it comes to sport there's been such a lack of investment for such a long period of time, so any direct comparison to the men's sports or the men's leagues is just wholly unfair. Until we have equal investment and over investment really, because we've been so undeserved for so long, we're not gonna have any sort of meaningful conversation about compensation and revenues and TV viewership."
This is the crux of the issue surrounding equal pay. The counter-argument to demands for equality is that women’s sport doesn’t bring in as much money as the men, ergo they should not be paid the same amount. But to suggest that is to lose sight of one of the key contributing factors to the current situation. One of the primary reasons that female athletes are paid so much less than their male counterparts is because they have been constantly denied the same opportunities.
'Remarkable!' - Shiffrin storms second run to win again in Killington
Sue Anstiss MBE, a trustee for the Women’s Sport Trust, gives an example of that sort of unfairness. “What I hear a lot of on a personal basis is the line of women aren’t selling tickets or watching so how can it ever be funded in the same way as men’s sport because it doesn’t have the commercial opportunities,” she says. “We’ve heard that a lot on the football side but you look back 50 years ago when women were banned from playing on FA’s pitches having been drawing massive crowds in the 20s or 30s only to be then banned as it wasn’t seen as the right thing for women to do.”
That FA ban is a perfect example of the discrimination women have had to overcome to try and get to a place where women’s sport is normalised. The ban was put into place by the Football Association in 1921, less than a year after a 1920 Boxing Day match between Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and St Helen’s drew a crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park. That petulant act from a terrified governing body put women’s football in England back 50 years, if not longer given all the work that had to be put in when the ban was eventually lifted in 1971. Would men’s football be where it is today if they had received a blanket 50-year ban on playing on FA pitches? No, of course not.
Shiffrin has heard the argument that women don’t bring in as much money as men, and she echoes Anstiss by pointing out that it’s a Catch-22 situation. “People have the point that if they’re not bringing in as much revenue then they shouldn’t be paid as much,” Shiffrin says with clear irritation at the suggestion. “But first of all that’s sort of been debunked because they are bringing in more revenue. And the second thing, you can’t expect to get a return on your investment before you’ve made an investment.”
But because of the culture of impatience that exists, combined with the inherent male bias that still exists in today’s society, it appears as if so many people aren’t willing to support women’s sport to see it grow to the level where it deserves to be.
In Taylor Swift’s 'The Man', from her album 'Lover', Swift highlights the level of everyday sexism women still have to deal with despite the progress that is being made. The song as a whole perfectly applies to the battle that women’s sport still faces, but the chorus perhaps rings true the most.
“I'm so sick of running / As fast as I can / Wondering if I'd get there quicker / If I was a man / And I'm so sick of them / Coming at me again / 'Cause if I was a man / Then I'd be the man.”
When it comes to sport, women are training and competing at the same level as men, yet the pay is still so different, why should that still be the case?
4. Where do we go from here?
Mikaela Shiffrin of USA at the start during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill Training on December 5, 2019 in Lake Louise Canada.
Image credit: Getty Images
The equal pay afforded to men and women within skiing is the perfect example of what is possible. But even in this haven of equal opportunity, amongst Shiffrin’s contemporaries no less, there are some dissenting noises. When Eurosport asks Ester Ledecka about the issues of equal pay within skiing she replies: “I think these days a lot of people are talking about these things a little bit too much. I have to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if the men get paid more because when I decide if I watch women race or men race I always decide to watch men because it’s more fun to watch.
“This is obviously just from my side and from this point of view I think they would maybe deserve more money because they would bring more viewers. But on the other hand the men do the same amount of work, the same amount of training so it doesn’t really matter because women are working as hard as they do.”
On a recent episode of Jamie Carragher's podcast The Greatest Game, England captain Steph Houghton was asked whether she would choose to watch men or women's football. She replied: "To be honest, even though I’m in the women’s game, I don’t really watch a lot of women’s football.” Before adding: "If it’s on the telly, I mean… I won’t break my neck to go and watch it, whereas, if there’s a good game on in men’s football, our whole nights revolve around watching that."
This is not to mount any kind of criticism of Ledecka or Houghton. It's more an indication of some of the prevailing attitudes which still exist, even among high-profile sportswomen. It highlights why it is imperative that until equal pay is established, people have to keep discussing the issue. As Shiffrin has done.
Grace O’Sullivan is a MEP [Member of the European Parliament] for the Irish Green Party and a former national surfing champion. She believes that skiing is an example to the rest of the sporting world. “As a former Irish surf-champion who is still involved in coaching junior surfers, this is an area that makes my blood boil.” O’Sullivan says. “Women athletes have been treated like second-class citizens for too long. For women’s sport to be given the sort of support and funding it needs to flourish, there has to be a rebalancing of the finances.
“We know how the world goes around – that unless money is going into the ground-up development of elite female athletes across every field of sport, the stars won’t reach peak performance, profiles won’t rise, sponsorship won’t be forthcoming etc. Women’s sport is starting to improve in terms of profile, sponsorship and building fan bases. But investment is needed, the massive spoils need to be shared a little more fairly and we need to see the gender pay-gap addressed. In an area that has been totally male-dominated for so long, so often women athletes are still on the back foot. With strategic, long-term investment and development we could see women reach and exceed the levels of success and remuneration we see their male counterparts enjoying.”
This should be treated way more seriously than it is
Standard Issue presenter Jen Offord thinks it may go even further still. “When the talent is nurtured, more people are interested in watching it, but the platform also needs to be there for women's sport and the interest needs to be there - one audience which I still think is largely untapped is women. At the recent North London derby [the Women’s Super League clash between Arsenal Women and Tottenham Hotspur Women], and at the World Cup in the summer, I noticed there were quite a few old boys there together probably just because they live locally and it's cheap to go to, but there were much fewer groups of women on their own - they were usually with men.
“I think that is because we're still in a process of normalising sports participation in women - which obviously starts at a young age, so the next generation will almost certainly have more interest in sport. However, is it as simple as equal pay? No of course it isn't, because what is the best way to normalise sports participation in young girls? Obviously to expose them to it, so it needs more coverage. I personally think this should be treated way more seriously than it is, because it's about women's health, as well.”
Shiffrin and others like her are fighting years of inequality and prejudice, years of women being told that they are not as good as men. The more coverage this issue receives, the more pressure will be on those who actually make the decisions. Then eventually we may be able to envisage a scenario where we can move on from the equal pay debate, the argument finally won.
WATCH: Shiffrin's run that broke the record - 'That's why she's world champion!'
Author Dr Carrie Dunn believes that equal pay is a vital first step because of the knock-on effect it can have at a lower level. “Equal or equivalent financing of sport is crucial, and equal pay goes along with that. Equal money means a sport is taken seriously at elite and grassroots levels, goes towards coaching and facilities, and helps with marketing. We've seen that with tennis - it's no coincidence that a sport that has striven towards equal pay also boasts most of the top-paid female athletes in the world. That's because their achievements are taken just as seriously as their male equivalents.”
Anstiss agrees. “The worry is that we think purely around prize money and pay and it’s right that we should but it’s also about player pathways and grassroots, having great venues, getting fans watching etc. There are sports and national sports that have taken the jump without waiting for the commercial bump, I think it’s about ensuring that it’s sustainable.”
It’s all about short-term investment for long-term gains. If people were willing to actually put money into women’s sport, as has been the case for men’s sport for all these years, then surely it’s easy to see how progress would come about. As O’Sullivan says, hopefully one day things will be different...
“I look forward to the day when the outstanding career of Mikaela Shiffrin will not be seen as an anomaly. There are countless numbers of hard-working, exceptionally talented female athletes out there. Let’s see them getting the financial support and facilities they need, and allow them to do us all proud by reaching their full potential.”
5. The greatest ever?
Mikaela Shiffrin of USA wins the globe in the overall standings during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's and Women's Super G on March 14, 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
By practically every metric, Shiffrin is on track to become the greatest skier ever. So what is left for her to achieve? Barring injury in the World Cup, Shiffrin looks poised to smash Stenmark’s magic 86 World Cup wins. Then there’s Marcel Hirscher’s eight Crystal Globes (in a row no less). Hirscher is confident Shiffrin will break that. At the World Championships Shiffrin has seven medals, eight off Christl Cranz’s tally of 15. And as for the Olympics, Shiffrin currently has three medals while Kjetil André Aamodt of Norway currently leads the way with eight.
“There’s no limit to how many wins she could have.” Dave Ryding says. “If she gets to my age  she can blow every record out of the water. There won’t be another one like her, at least not for a long, long time.” Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, who has recently switched from the US to Great Britain, adds: “She’s absolutely impressive. She’s very much a prodigy and will hold all the records.”
Yet when Shiffrin is asked whether records are the things which motivate her to keep going, she almost laughs at the suggestion. “I think if I was only motivated by success or results then I probably would have stopped a while ago.” Shiffrin says. “I find a little bit of motivation in those records but really I just feel like I have more that I can accomplish in skiing. Not results wise but with my actual skiing.
What motivates me is the piece of the sport that is removed from the records or the results or the racing
“Every time that I go out on snow I feel like I’m figuring stuff out with my technique and I’m making turns that are better than what I made yesterday or last year. I can feel the improvements, I can see them in video and it reflects in my timings. That’s really exciting to me so every time I get off snow I’m always thinking I’m kind of excited to get back on snow and work on this. What motivates me is the piece of the sport that is removed from the records or the results or the racing. It’s the training, and the racing is its own thing and the winning is a cherry on top of the cake. I like watching my favourite skiers and see what they do and do it themselves.”
A superstar who never lost touch with what made her fall in love with her sport in the first place, Shiffrin is even reluctant to accept the praise that comes her way. And it evidently comes universally from her peers. She deserves to be spoken about in the same vein as people like Lionel Messi or Serena Williams, such is the superhuman nature of her performances. But for Shiffrin she’s just doing her job.
“We were talking about this with someone else, discussing some amazing athlete, I can’t remember who it was, just the other night and I was saying ‘that person is amazing’ and the person I was talking to knows the athlete and he was saying that it is [amazing what that athlete is doing] but when you’re that close to it, it feels less heroic,” she says. “So for me it’s sort of like being the athlete who you might be talking about - it doesn’t feel very heroic to me. I’m just going out and doing my job every day. I love it and I feel good so I just keep plugging away. It’s weird, it’s almost impossible to take a step back and realise everything that I’ve done so I just roll with it. It’s not even added pressure [the comparisons], all I can say is thank you. If the opinion is out there, that’s great. I think you’re wrong but great, thanks.”
6. A multi-faceted role model for a new generation
Skier Mikaela Shiffrin of US poses for photographs
Image credit: Getty Images
The more that issues like the gender pay gap can be discussed in sport, the more they can be tackled. The worst response would be to think that the battle is over, to stop talking, and then to lose the war. Shiffrin is the perfect role model for today’s younger generation. She’s vocal on social issues, she isn’t afraid of calling out inequality and she’s always true to herself.
“When you’re getting girls into sport, they can see Shiffrin who is as big a deal as Marcel Hirscher so they’ve got an idol to work towards,” Guest says. “It’s not like, ‘oh there’s no point me skiing because I won’t be able to make a career out of it’. No you will, look at her. I’m not on her level but I want to be that role model for younger girls like she is, being strong, powerful and being yourself. Not being that Kardashian-style figure is cool and will get you places.”
I hate the idea that athletes should keep their mouths shut
Shiffrin is a game-changer. When someone like her transcends her sport it has a profound effect. Doors open that normally wouldn’t. She now has the opportunity to champion her sport, the good example that it is setting, and how that can be applied. Gender equality won’t resolve itself overnight. Neither will it resolve itself on the basis of what Shiffrin does or says. But that doesn’t mean she should stop. She can still affect change. Like so many other athletes before her she is aware that her role goes far beyond sport.
“Anyone who has a platform should use that platform,” Kenworthy says. “Anyone that is in the public eye has a voice that is amplified and you need to use it, especially to speak out for disenchanted voices who don’t have their voices echoed or their sentiments heard, and speak up for what you believe in. I hate the idea that athletes should keep their mouths shut.”
Shiffrin has certainly stepped up and not remained quiet. She’s kind and considerate off the slopes, and a ruthless winner on it. She’s the kid who loves skiing, who is going to hold every record by the time she retires. She’s the goofy, piano-playing girl who just wants to have a good time. She’s the strong voice on equal pay, a pioneer for women’s equality within sport.
She’s Mikaela Shiffrin, and she’s more than a slalom skier.