The ski season might be over for most of us, but it’s not for Mikaela Shiffrin. As we begin to store our ski equipment for a long summer’s nap, Shiffrin is still making turns with the U.S. Ski Team at spring training in Squaw Valley, Calif.
The 2020-’21 World Cup season only just ended a few weeks ago, and you’d think that the racers would want to take some time off snow and out of ski boots to just relax. Not Shiffrin, though.
With the pandemic somewhat under control stateside, the U.S. Ski Team is once again able to hold its regular spring training camps in Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain, and Shiffrin is seizing the opportunity to get in as much on-snow training as possible before the next season—an Olympic season—begins again in October.
These spring training camps are a critical time for Shiffrin and the rest of the U.S. Ski Team, not just because they allow racers to get in more turns through race courses and work on their technique, but because they present an opportunity for focused equipment testing.
When these annual camps were cancelled due to the pandemic last April, Shiffrin not only missed on-snow training time, but the chance to test the skis she’d be skiing in the following season’s races.
“In a normal preparation period I’d probably be going through 30 different skis throughout the summer,” Shiffrin explained during a recent phone interview. “But last year I skied on just five pairs of skis all summer long.”
The biggest hiccup for Shiffrin during last season’s preparation period: her personal ski technician, Johann Strobl from Atomic, wasn’t able to travel to the U.S. from his home in Austria.
Ski technicians are a racer’s right-hand man. They are integral parts of a racer’s coaching team, responsible for getting their racer’s skis dialed to course and snow conditions the day of the race. But their role extends far beyond that. Servicemen like Strobl help racers like Shiffrin identify what equipment best suits their style of skiing and the different courses they’ll encounter on the World Cup circuit—and if that equipment doesn’t yet exist, then they help develop it for them.
SKI caught up with Shiffrin and Strobl during spring training to talk about what goes into ski testing and service at the World Cup level and how the right equipment can make the best slalom skier in history even faster.
SKI: How many skis are in Mikaela Shiffrin’s World Cup quiver?
Shiffrin: Normally, during the summer period before the season even starts, I would go through 20-30 pairs of skis. But last summer [Johann] wasn’t able to get to the U.S., so Atomic shipped three ski bags, basically five slalom skis and five giant slalom skis, rather than like 15-20 pairs of each. So I just had those 10 pairs of skis and I stayed with those for all of our summer camps and prep.
Then when we went over to Europe for the season, where [Johann] lives. We were able to unite everyone and he brought some skis. But right off the bat I said, I can’t just go into full blown testing now because I haven’t been doing it all summer. So let’s just keep it manageable. Normally you take the preparation period to figure out what skis you’re going to be leaning towards for the races, but we didn’t have that time last year. So instead I was trying to figure that out through the winter.
Strobl: For the World Championships, I drive with 60 to 70 pairs of skis [for Mikaela]. For the normal World Cup races, I travel with 30 pairs of skis, all skis that Mikaela has skied before.
SKI: What’s been the focus of equipment testing during this preparation period so far? Are you testing mainly slalom and GS skis, or also speed equipment?
Shiffrin: We started with slalom in Kühtai, Austria, right after World Cup finals. Atomic had quite a few different ideas for some slightly different ski shapes and constructions that might feel more forgiving in certain conditions, or have more snap on the harder snow. They had a couple different things that they had been wanting to get on snow and have someone try. It was super productive. Even getting in a little bit of focused testing in one event is better than nothing.
I would like to get some time with GS skis. With super-G and downhill, one thing that’s great is that we have quite a few very talented downhill and super-G skiers on Atomic, including Sofia Goggia, who’s done a lot of testing. It seems like the Atomic skis on the speed side have some things that are working really well. I actually haven’t been on my downhill skis in over a year, since Bansko [World Cup downhill in Bulgaria], so well over a year at this point. So I don’t know how that’s going to feel.
SKI: You encountered a lot of warm, wet, and sloppy snow conditions on the World Cup courses this past season. Is Atomic working on developing skis that will perform better in these types of conditions?
Shiffrin: Yes. Atomic has very few weaknesses in their skis, so when we’re testing and developing new ideas, it’s mainly focusing on how to improve the skis’ strengths. It just so happens that in the last three races of the season, we were dealing with particularly soft and dead snow.
Those conditions are hard to prepare for in training because we always prepare training slopes the way we think World Cups slopes will be, which we think of as icy. But then it ends up being warm or raining for the race, and those are things you just can’t control. So having something in the quiver that’s going to feel lighter and easier to keep the quickness in those really slow, sluggish, like-molasses conditions, that’s what we’re looking to develop. But we also don’t want to get so fixated on that that we lose the strengths in every other race and conditions we have.
Watch: Shiffrin battles soft snow to overtake Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova
SKI: Johann, what do you do on the service side to make sure skis are running perfectly for the type of conditions Mikaela will ski on race day?
Racers get one day of training on the race slope before the race. That’s when we try the skis that worked well during the last training and also try some other options if something isn’t working well. Racers get to ski the race hill for two runs to test the surface. That’s a chance to try two different pairs of skis. Then [Mikaela and I talk] after that to see what’s working.
Then I get everything ready for the race. I wax the skis, file the edges, and put some finish wax on the bases. In speed races, wax is the most important thing. But on the tech side, it’s more about getting the edges right. But I usually do that on the race day, to see how the surface changes from the training days. I might change something because of the weather. The last tuning is on race day, probably 40 minutes before the race at the top of the course.
SKI: How long have you two been working together?
Strobl: This coming season will be my fourth season with Mikaela. I worked with [Austrian tech skier] Marcel Hirscher for four years before that.
SKI: Mikaela, did the fact that Johann teched for Hirscher before joining your team inspire some confidence?
It actually was a little bit intimidating in the beginning because I know Marcel did a lot with equipment testing and I always tended to keep things as simple as possible and go with what I was familiar with. I felt a little bit worried that it might be boring for Johann to work with me, but he has helped me understand more about variations in equipment setup and how that can really help performance.
Strobl: Marcel was a really good tester and could feel everything. Mikaela didn’t do a lot of testing in the last years, but now we’re testing quite a lot. Mikaela is skiing pretty well, but you can always ski better. The service guys are just trying to help make the racers faster. We’re there to bring the best skis or equipment you can get from the factory to the race hill. We work through it, test it, and try to find better options for the racers.
Shiffrin: Before this spring, I’ve never really done focused testing, where my only real goal for the training session is to feel what’s going on with the skis. It’s always been, work on something technically and give some feedback on what I’m feeling with skis or boots or something. I’ve never been great at knowing what goes into the equipment, just how it feels to me.
I’m usually the type to say [if something isn’t working], it’s my skiing, it’s my technique, it’s my fault. [The Atomic team] have always said, maybe it’s a combination of both, so let’s get to the bottom of it.
SKI: How much does ski service depend on the racer? Do you do things to Mikaela’s skis that are unique to her style of skiing?
Strobl: You don’t do things very differently for different racers on the World Cup, but there is something unique about each racer. Every service guy tunes differently, so you have to find out what racers like or what they don’t like. At the beginning it can be a little bit tricky, but it could also be a good thing.
Mikaela has her own ski constructions, skis that were specifically designed for her. But if she can find a [stock] ski that all the other girls are using, and feel fine on that ski, then I usually recommend that she stay with that ski without too much testing. Testing makes things difficult for racers.
SKI: Because of how much time they spend together, racers and ski technicians develop close working relationships. Lindsey Vonn and her serviceman Heinzi were an example. Is it the same for you two?
Strobl: Yes, I mean, I spend the whole season driving to races with Mikaela…
Shiffrin: I guess it’s possible to have a very cut-and-dry racer-tech relationship, but honestly, I don’t think it would last very long because we spend SO much time traveling, away from home and our own families, so we have to become a bit like a traveling family. Johann and my PT [Jeff Lackie] are the two at the start with me for each race, and Johann is normally the last person to say anything to me before I go, so he has had to learn a lot about who I am as a person to know what I want, or sometimes need to hear, before I start in order to be in the right mindset for the race.
I’ve had to learn about how he likes to work and who he is behind just tuning the skis to understand how to make him feel valued and comfortable to do his job the best he can. Every member of the team needs to know that the work they do is valuable and needed.
I really believe my friendship with Johann has helped my success, especially in the tougher times during the season when everyone is tired and it feels very monotonous, but we both see the work that the other is doing and it helps motivate us to keep working hard.