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Last weekend, while most of us were searching for last minute gifts and hitting holiday parties, Mikaela Shiffrin was in St Moritz, Switzerland nabbing her 77th career World Cup victory. The super-G win capped a weekend where she finished sixth and fourth in two downhills, padding her lead over speed specialist Sohpia Goggia in the overall World Cup standings by over 100 points. Her closest all-round skier rivals—Wendy Holdener and Petra Vlhova—drifted even further in Shiffrin’s rear view mirror, trailing her by 199 and 235 points respectively.
As she did after her twin slalom victories at the season opener in Levi, Finland, Shiffrin called out her team. It’s something she often does, but this season, she hasn’t only been referring to Team Shiffrin—the entourage that includes two coaches, two service people, a physio, a press officer, and her mother.
This season, she’s started calling out a team she hasn’t been tight with in the past: her American teammates.
In Levi, Shiffrin shared an upbeat interview with her young teammate Ava Sunshine, after whom she would later name one of her reindeer—the spoils of Levi. She also noted the benefit of being pushed by fellow slalom specialist Paula Moltzan, and the rare, welcome feat of having three American teammates—Moltzan, Sunshine, and Katie Hensie—in the second run of a World Cup slalom. Similarly, in St Moritz she called out the specific performances of teammates Isabella Wright, Breezy Johnson, and Lauren Macuga.
Call it a shift or an evolution, but “teammate” may be the latest step on this ski racing superstar’s journey from protected teen phenom, to laser-focused Olympic, World Cup, and World Champion to philosophical vet on the cusp of GOAT status. For fans like me, it’s a refreshing reason to cheer.
Private coaches are nothing new in ski racing, especially to bolster athletes competing in all events. In Shiffrin’s case, however, the separation from the team setting was early and extreme. What started out as a protective barrier for a young cub amongst a fast-moving pack quickly became an impenetrable fortress that separated her from all distractions—especially teammates.
I do not pretend to know what it takes to achieve world-dominating success on Shiffrin’s scale. Few of us mortal hacks do, though we can get a glimpse in her newly released Youtube channel . At the very least, it takes an unfathomable amount of mental and physical strength, time, expertise, and coordination to manage the training and competition schedule, not to mention the business and media side of celebrity.
That said, Team Shiffrin’s relationship with anyone outside the tight circle was known to be more exclusive than collaborative. To fans of the broader U.S. talent pool, that felt like an enormous wasted opportunity. Without a team dynamic or the ability to train together, developing American racers lived in the shadow of the best skier in the world, yet had no way to capitalize on her talents.
To be sure, it’s easy to cheer for the underdog, and blessedly uncomplicated to be one. Shiffrin lost the luxury of underdog status when she won her first Olympic gold in 2014, at age 18. Add that to the weight of expectation she has carried daily on her run towards undisputed GOAT-ness in World Cup ski racing. (By the numbers that means surpassing Lindsey Vonn’s 82 victories and Ingemar Stenmark’s 86.) The goat path is, by definition, untrodden. As such it is solitary, but perhaps not forever.
In Levi, Shiffrin also thanked her boyfriend and Norwegian World Cup ski racer, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, who famously supported her during last year’s Beijing Olympics. Norwegians are legendary for prioritizing team culture. Teammates are linked by a Three Musketeers-like sense of shared destiny and a paradigm whereby success (or failure) for one is borne by all. Shiffrin went into the 2022 Games bearing expectations that would have crushed Atlas like a parched scarecrow. When she struggled to finish let alone win events, she didn’t crumple. Instead, she stuck it out, even competing in the team parallel event and visibly soaking up the concept of team support. It seemed very Norwegian.
In St Moritz, Shiffrin credited her teammates for creating a positive atmosphere on both the tech and speed teams. “I feel very grateful to have that kind of experience at this point in my career,” she said. As Shiffrin noted at the Killington World Cup, she is closer to the end of her career than the beginning. Perhaps being in bonus territory—yet still very much in her prime—makes it easier to enjoy the view, and the company.
Why do people like me even care about how great athletes win, as long as they win? My list for that is long. From the perspective of a former elite athlete, I know that when athletic careers end, what you’re left with on the other side are the friends, the relationships and the memories you’ve made along the way. As a fan, it feels good to root for a winner; it feels even better to root for a champion who invests in the success of her team—someone who not only sets records, but sets an example.
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