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What Off-Season?

While you’re ripping spring corn and gearing up for mountain biking season, Mikaela Shiffrin is still in full-on training mode.

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It’s my first time skiing Squaw Valley, and I can’t get enough of KT-22. It’s the last weekend in April, and though Squaw wasn’t blessed with the snow it got last winter, “Miracle March” brought 18 feet and the mountain is now in top spring form: the moguls on Chute 75 are big yet benign sugary mounds, perfectly spaced and begging to be zippered in true Jonny Moseley fashion. I’m ripping around with a couple of Squaw locals who are on a mission to show me this mountain’s incredible terrain and demonstrate why Squaw Valley deserves its self-proclaimed title of Spring Skiing Capital. I’m led down Chute 75 and West Face, guided over to Women’s Downhill and Deadman’s, and just when my legs can’t take anymore, my tour guides announce it’s time to hit the Chammy. We head over to legendary Le Chamois après bar where a crowd of Hawaiian-shirt and neon-clad skiers and riders have congregated to drink away the remaining hours of daylight. 

Le Chamois at Squaw Valley
Typical après scene at the legendary Le Chamois in Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.Photo courtesy of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

Eat, sleep, repeat. While I’m on a mission to soak in as much spring stoke as possible, Mikaela Shiffrin is also at Squaw, but on an entirely different mission. 

Besides being the Spring Skiing Capital, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is also an official U.S. Ski & Snowboard training site, and Shiffrin and a few teammates are here this weekend to run GS gates. With the speed and precision she’s known for, Shiffrin rips through the course in her speed suit, heading straight for the lift line at the bottom. Reflect, ski, repeat.

As I watch a few of Shiffrin’s training runs, I can’t help but think about how different Shiffrin’s spring skiing routine is to mine—and every other recreational skier. I wonder if, while training in a place like Squaw during the spring, Shiffrin notices the stark contrast as well. One week later, on Cinco de Mayo, she takes a break in her training regimen to chat with me about what spring skiing means when you’re a pro ski racer.

Is it difficult for you to train and stay focused, especially in a place like Squaw, when everyone around you is enjoying spring skiing and everything that entails—skiing around in costumes, après beers, pond skims?

I actually find it refreshing to train in an environment that’s more relaxed. The atmosphere in Squaw, and California in general, gives you a spring-break feeling. Right now, I’m focusing on high-intensity, high-volume skiing, and it’s fun to be doing that kind of training in a more relaxed atmosphere. It’s when I get my best work done on snow because there’s no pressure. I feel like I can smile, I can laugh. When I’m training, I never completely lose that feeling of urgency, but in this kind of atmosphere there’s just less stress.

This time of year is also fun because people are hanging out at the side of the training courses, cheering us [U.S. Ski Team members] on. There were quite a few people in Squaw who recognized me and wanted to chat on the chairlift. During the height of the season I can’t really engage with them, because I’m so focused. But during this kind of training at the end of the season, I can chat with people on chairlifts or on the side of the course, and it’s really fun to see the response I get from people. They’re excited, inspired, and it helps remind me of how fun and exciting my life actually is.

For most, spring is about skiing for the fun of it. What about you—is freeskiing even a thing in your life?

I did a lot of freeskiing when I was younger. I mean, I grew up in Colorado, and there’s no shortage of powder and awesome terrain there. But since being on the World Cup circuit, I don’t want to give up time to just rip around the mountain.

Mikaela Shiffrin training at Squaw Valley
Shiffrin’s spring routine looks a little different than most skiers’ idea of spring skiing. Photo courtesy of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

Some World Cup racers say that freeskiing is an essential part of their training. Your thoughts?

If you ask racers you get different responses about that, and I think it’s totally personal preference. Freeskiing can take your mind off skiing, and for some, that’s a good thing. Some racers love freeskiing so much that they would give up a training day to go powder skiing.  I’m not cut from that same cloth. I would much rather take a day off as a rest day or as a training day. Part of what’s so great about freeskiing—powder or moguls—is it’s great for building athleticism and developing a really solid feel for the snow. But I find it really difficult to focus on my actual technique doing that kind of skiing. I feel like I have a pretty solid foundation, and I feel like I’m pretty athletic—maybe not the most athletic person, but I certainly feel like that’s not something I necessarily need to focus on. My biggest struggle is how I feel in the gates. I want to work on my tactics and finding the fastest line. And I don’t feel like I can improve on those things unless I’m in gates.

Everyone is already hatching plans for the off-season, talking about mountain biking and taking trips to the beach. What about you, do you get an off-season?

Most people think that the off-season for skiers is mid-March to mid-October. But the reality is, there’s actually not that much time when professional skiers are not working. Even when we’re off snow for a month or two, we do plenty of training. Right now I’m in Mammoth for a few more days of training, then I have a media fundraiser to do.

What off-season? Mikaela Shiffrin in full-on training mode.
Shiffrin carving the precise lines she’s known for at Mammoth Mountain. Photo credit: Peter Morning, Mammoth Mountain

But normally in April there is a week or two when I have time to take a little bit of a break. Last year, that didn’t really happen since the Olympics were coming up. So last year, and this year, have been busy and stressful. But I thought to myself, there are a lot of people in the world who go without vacation for a year, so I just told myself to suck it up and stay focused, then I would get through the season and be able to relax later. So in a few days, I’ll be off for two weeks, and I’ll spend that time on a beach. It’s a long time to be off snow, but I’m looking forward to it.

And after that? What’s on the agenda for the summer?

I’ll be heading to Chile or somewhere else in South America for training at the end of July. Last year we went to New Zealand for summer training, but we’re trying to find a place a little closer to home this summer. It’s just a lot, flying 20-plus hours and switching countless time zones.

Are you celebrating Cinco de Mayo today?

I celebrated by catching up on email and chatting with coaches about upcoming training plans. I’ll hopefully round out the day by watching an episode of Game of Thrones. I just started it recently, and I feel almost guilty about it. It’s like, if I’m this late to the party, should I even try to come to the party? But now I’m at the end of the latest season and I almost don’t want to finish it. I’m in denial that I only have a few episodes left, and I don’t want to have to wait until the next season comes out in a year from now. So I’m thinking I might just try to hold off, and save the last episodes until the next season comes out. That way I’m in control—I can just hold off now and then get to finish the series all at once. 

The takeaway? Mikaela Shiffrin is all about delayed gratification and relaxation, no matter the season. So is it difficult for her to be training when everyone else is out having fun? Nope. She’d rather be in the gates, anyway.