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Full speed ahead: Shiffrin envisions another busy schedule

November 23, 2018
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United States's Mikaela Shiffrin reacts at finish line after winning an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom, in Levi, Finland, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gabriele Facciotti)

By the end of last season, Mikaela Shiffrin was so drained she couldn’t possibly imagine racing in that many events ever again.

Right up until this season, that is.

The two-time World Cup overall champion now envisions an even more frenzied pace. From downhill to super-G, from giant slalom to an array of slaloms along with the occasional combined, just sign her up.

Sure, she will take the occasional break to sharpen her technical skills or get some rest, but really there’s no slowing her down these days. In an era of specialization, the 23-year-old from Avon, Colorado, keeps branching out and has become the rare six-event racer — even if her peers wonder if she can keep it up.

“It’s a challenge right now I’m willing and excited to take on,” said Shiffrin , who will be a favorite in both the giant slalom and slalom races during a World Cup stop this weekend in Killington, Vermont. “That’s also part of the deal — you have to be excited and motivated in the sport. That’s one of the things keeping me motivated.”

See, Shiffrin knows her winning formula doesn’t necessarily involve speed events. Case in point: Take away her results from downhill and super-G last season and she still wins the overall by 293 points over Wendy Holdener of Switzerland. That’s how dialed in Shiffrin’s been at the slalom and the GS.

But she has a craving for more speed. The only hitch is each speed training session takes just a fraction away from her rhythm for the technical events, which might not be noticeable to anyone but her.

“Every day that I train downhill or super-G I’m thinking, ‘That might just be one little millimeter of my quick twitch muscles going asleep for a little while,’” said Shiffrin, who won the slalom in Levi, Finland, last weekend and received a reindeer as a prize. “And then I’m always thinking, ‘When am I going to get my slalom training in?’

“There’s just a certain amount of preparation I need for every event.”

The specialization route has worked wonders for Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, who has captured seven straight overall World Cup titles. Hirscher dominates the slalom and GS so much, winning both disciplines last season, that it’s hard to dethrone him. He was on the podium 16 times in 20 races — none in speed events. Shiffrin was on the podium 18 times in 26 races — with one downhill win and two more third-place finishes.

“Is it more challenging racing (all the events)? You bet,” U.S. women’s assistant coach Karin Harjo said. “There are only so many hours in a week and days in a year to really prepare at the highest level.”

Especially for the downhill, where it’s typically a four-day commitment given all the training runs.

“It’s a difficult task,” U.S. racer Ted Ligety said. “But when you have people like Mikaela that have a good enough buffer in the slalom, they don’t necessarily train as much in that area to stay on top. But if she does compete in this many events full-time, it will probably wear on her after a little bit. It’s the reality of the time allocation to race that many races a year versus taking some of those downhill races off a year.”

That’s why Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway gave up the pursuit. He used to do all the disciplines at a high level until a crash in a downhill training run at Beaver Creek, Colorado, in 2007. After that, he steadily got away from the slalom. It was too much work to test all the equipment.

“The skis, the boots, the bindings, the down-pressure on the bindings — the evolution of the equipment makes it harder and harder,” Svindal explained. “It separates the disciplines even farther than before.”

His teammate Kjetil Jansrud also pointed out how this age of specialization has been a game changer.

“If you want to do all of them, there’s just not enough time to train to the level of the people who specialize in one event,” Jansrud said. “The level is so high in every single event.”

Still, Shiffrin remains game for the quest.

This weekend, she competes in her two signature events — a giant slalom on Saturday and slalom on Sunday. Shiffrin has Olympic gold medals in both disciplines, winning the slalom at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the GS at the Pyeongchang Games last February.

Last month, during the season-opening giant slalom race in Soelden, Austria, she wound up third behind Tessa Worley of France. As it turns out, Shiffrin actually went on an offseason vacation in Martinique with a group that included her boyfriend, Mathieu Faivre, and Worley.

“I haven’t ever seen any of my European competitors outside of the races — to see them in life, on vacation, and how they relax and how they do things,” Shiffrin said. “I was able to relate to them, realize they weren’t all that different from me. That was really cool.”

She has her upcoming World Cup race plans all mapped out.

Well, sort of.

After Killington, there are speed races in Lake Louise, Alberta, along with super-G and parallel slalom competitions in St. Moritz, Switzerland (although she may not run the super-G). After that, she’s playing things by ear, with rest being the guiding factor, especially with world championships in February.

“I’m getting older and learning a lot about myself and what I need to feel confident in races,” Shiffrin said. “For me, there’s a formula of preparation that equals confidence and equals success. There’s some amount of rest that goes in there that helps, too. Somehow, all those pieces fit together.”

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