Why golden girl Mikaela Shiffrin could emulate Usain Bolt's Beijing glory in Pyeongchang
A 22-year-old American is set to be the star of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Eurosport's Tom Bennett details Mikaela Shiffrin's meteoric rise to within touching distance of world sport's summit.
Watching Mikaela Shiffrin ski evokes emotions rarely felt in sport.
The American carves through the snow with such graceful ease that it doesn’t take long to realise why she’s been tipped to become the greatest skier of all time. And while Shiffrin is still just 22 years of age, she has already reached a sporting level to which few ever ascend.
Lionel Messi at his peak; Usain Bolt; Shiffrin – only the true greats make genius look so effortless.
Bolt became a legend at Beijing in 2008.
Shiffrin is on the cusp of her own Beijing moment.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang promises to be Shiffrin’s crowning glory. A five-medal haul is not beyond the realms of possibility, with Shiffrin capable of winning all the individual Alpine events when the world’s finest compete on the Korean Peninsula.
One of those golds appears to be nailed on (as much as any event featuring such variables can ever be).
Slalom is the event in which Shiffrin’s genius shines brightest. Four years ago, she won Olympic Gold in Sochi at the age of just 18, and her dominance of slalom racing has only increased since then. She’s won four of the past five World Cups - only missing out on a sweep due to injury - and has racked up win after win after win this season.
In her career to-date, Shiffrin has won an astonishing 30 World Cup slalom races – just five shy of the all-time women's record.
“She is on another level,” admitted Swedish skier Frida Hansdotter earlier this season. It is not hard to see why her rivals have come to such a conclusion.
Shiffrin does not merely win slalom races. She dismantles the opposition, often winning by margins of over a second; equivalent to Bolt streaking away by metres in his 100m triumphs.
It appears that only a crash or a freak underperformance can stop Shiffrin taking slalom gold in Pyeongchang. But it is highly, highly unlikely to be her only medal of the Games.
Mikaela Shiffrin competes in the first run of the FIS World Cup Ladies Slalom race in Kranjska Gora, on January 7, 2018Getty Images
Shiffrin has also dominated Giant Slalom of late, using her sublime technique to carry speed through the wider turns to great effect. She’s the clear favourite to take another gold in that event, but the gold rush is unlikely to end there.
The history of skiing has been littered with examples of technically brilliant skiers transitioning to the more daredevil Downhill and Super-G races.
Like Lindsey Vonn managed a decade before her, Shiffrin is emerging as a genuine contender in the speed events too.
Her Downhill and Super-G appearances have been few and far between this season, but her first World Cup Downhill win in Lake Louise at the start of December hinted at her potential to sweep the board in Pyeongchang.
And it would be little surprise if that is Shiffrin’s aim. It only takes a brief glance at her route to the top to realise that she leaves no stone unturned in her pursuit of domination.
This is where comparisons with Usain Bolt end.
While Bolt trains phenomenally hard, he is also an extremely sociable person, and one not averse to the odd party or three.
In contrast, Shiffrin is all about skiing.
Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates her win in Flachau.Getty Images
Her parents had her carving out parallel turns before she could barely walk.
So often such parental pressure leads to rebellion, but Shiffrin bought into the vision.
She was home-schooled; rejected social skiing trips for training drills; kicked up a stink to attend Burke Mountain Academy in her early teens; and has shut herself off to such an extent that she only has one close friend – former room-mate Bug Pech, who communicates with Shiffrin almost exclusively through Skype.
To this day, Shiffrin remains professional to an extreme degree, as her coach Jeff Lackie revealed in an interview with CNN:
" When you're over in Europe and away from home and family there's no sense in taking Christmas off, you might as well continue training. There's no one on the hill, it's nice. We did that last year, too. We trained all the way through Christmas and went to Semmering (Austria) and swept all the races. "
"The competition, the Europeans, I'm sure they were at home with their families. That's the difference between Mikaela Shiffrin and her competition."
It will prove a worthy sacrifice if Shiffrin dominates in Pyeongchang to the level that her peers expect. But her status as one of the sport’s bests is already close to being assured.
Shiffrin’s total of 40 World Cup wins puts her over halfway towards Lindsey Vonn’s all-time record of 76. Vonn is still skiing competitively at 33. Shiffrin is 11 years her junior, raising the prospect of a decade of dominance.
The great and the good of winter sport sat up and took notice long ago, but the plaudits continue to rain in. Speaking to Eurosport prior to the Winter Olympics, American legend Bode Miller summed up the prevailing view:
"I think she's maybe the best ski racer I've ever seen, male or female. She's so balanced, dynamic, intense and focussed, so for me, I think she's got a chance in any event she skis in."
Usain Bolt grasped his opportunity to ascend to greatness with both hands in 2008.
Ten years on and Shiffrin’s own opportunity has arrived. It is up to her to take it.
By Tom Bennett