Girls Sports Month: Mikaela Shiffrin on being the best skier in the world and fans inspiring her

Girls Sports Month: Mikaela Shiffrin on being the best skier in the world and fans inspiring her

Girls Sports Month

Girls Sports Month: Mikaela Shiffrin on being the best skier in the world and fans inspiring her

March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports will provide a series of pieces in which female athletes from high school to the pros and their mentors and coaches share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives.

Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates on the podium for the Women’s Alpine Combined competition at the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, 26 February 2017. (Photo: Alessandro Della Valle, EPA)

Mikaela Shiffrin recently won a world championship slalom race dressed like a super hero.

Her Spyder speed suit inspired by Captain Marvel was a good look for the 21-year-old who continues to rewrite the record books in ski racing and has risen to the top of her sport since making her World Cup debut in 2011. She is a three-time world champion and Olympic champion in slalom.

With races remaining in Squaw Valley, Calif., and Aspen, Colo., Shiffrin is closing in on her first overall World Cup title after a long season. Since opening the season in Soelden, Austria, where she placed second in a slalom in October, Shiffrin has skied in World Cup races in Finland, Killington, Vt., Canada, Italy, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland.

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Born in Vail, Colo., Shiffrin moved to the East Coast with her family and graduated from Burke Mountain Academy, a private school in Vermont for elite skiers and snowboarders.

USA TODAY Sports recently caught up with Shiffrin by phone after she won gold in slalom and silver in giant slalom at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

USA TODAY Sports: You recently won your slalom world championship by 1.6 seconds, which is a huge margin in ski racing. How are you able to win races by such big margins?

Mikaela Shiffrin: Last year on most of the slaloms that I raced – I was injured for part of the year – but I did race in five World Cup slaloms last season and most of those slaloms were fairly large margins. It was a pretty interesting year for me because in each race I went to and won by over 1.5 seconds. Each time I did that, I was thinking what is happening? It’s like everybody’s playing a joke on me. They’re just saying, ‘Let’s just make Mikaela think that she’s fast and we’ll come back and crush her.’

Each race I kept getting faster. I was working really hard on my skiing and coming back from my injury. I got quite a bit of slalom training in, I was really in shape and my timing was totally on to race slalom. That was a huge part of it. Then going into this season our first few races I had good results, but it was not the huge margins that we’d seen last year. I was sort of thinking maybe that was sort of an anomaly. …

I also felt like I wasn’t really reaching the level of skiing that I was last season. Pretty much since the beginning of this season, I’ve been trying to get back to that, that timing, that level of discipline and precision that I had down to a science last year.

We’re one year out from the Olympics in Pyeongchang. How confident does that make you – knowing you are the best in the world?

It’s kind of surreal. Since I was a little girl I’ve always dreamt about being the best in the world. Even in the past year when people would say that to me, I was like, well technically I’m not. I’m the best slalom skier in the world. I’m not number one in the overall standings; it doesn’t really count.

Mikaela Shiffrin competes in an alpine ski, women’s World Cup combined race. (Photo: Gabriele Facciotti, Associated Press)

This is the first time that I can actually kind of say, technically on paper, that’s what I am. Of course it feels good to be in this position right now. It definitely gives me hope or a really optimistic attitude going into the Olympics. But at the same time, there’s a lot of time between now and then. I’m trying to take everything in stride and not get too amped up because it’s really easy to get too excited too soon and not be excited enough when the time actually comes.

You’re No. 1 in the world and very close to sealing up the overall World Cup title. You would be only the fifth American to win the overall, joining Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Tamara McKinney and Phil Mahre. What is it like to be mentioned in that list and to do something that so few of your countrymen have done?

It would be incredible. All of those names – those are all my idols, my childhood heroes. To be listed alongside them would be incredible and hopefully will help inspire another generation of racers from the U.S.

The problem with ski racing in the U.S. is that it is such a big country, it’s really difficult to tap into all of the potential, all of the talent out there and all of the kids who work hard. … I’m hoping that the more success the U.S. has, the more we’re going to have sort of a platform to build some programs so that we can access that potential and get these kids to develop.

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I was always inspired by Bode and Lindsey especially, but even Tamara and Phil Mahre and so many other U.S. athletes. I was lucky enough to have parents who knew what was going on in the ski racing world, and they exposed me to it because they just loved it. It was sort of a family passion. That’s what got me going. But a lot of kids don’t have that, and that’s what I’m hoping will change in the next few years if I continue to have success, with Lindsey back racing and strong, Ted (Ligety) coming back strong as well.

Can you tell me about the super suit that you were wearing?

Marvel and Spyder and the U.S. Ski team apparently – I actually didn’t know this until I saw the suits and the ski team explained it to me a little bit. They partnered up to make these suits for our world championships. They’re inspired by Captain Marvel; they’re inspired by all of the Marvel superheroes. It was a pretty cool theme I thought.

When I put it on for the first time, I was like, oh my gosh, you look good girl. I was looking in the mirror; I tried it on to make sure that it fit like I don’t know, five minutes before my race or something. … It made me feel good. All of the athletes got a ton of compliments on them. Everyone was like, you just look like a superhero, it’s really cool.

You didn’t get to see it much when we were racing because we were wearing our bibs – our competition bibs. But there was sort of a gold stripe – it was sort of a symbol of a gold medal I think. … You couldn’t really see it when we were actually competing, but when I got some pictures with the bib off, it looked pretty sweet.

Will the World Cup finals in Aspen be the end of your season? Or will you ski at the national championships in Sugarloaf (Maine)?

I’m not planning to do nationals right now; I have every year. It can be really fun to go back and compete against all of my buddies racing on the college circuit and my friends on the U.S. Ski Team. I feel like it’s just pushing it this year; it’s been a really long season and I’d rather take some rest. But I might go to Sugarloaf if there’s any appearances or something, just get everybody hyped up about the sport. For sure nationals – like I was talking about earlier – trying to give these kids in the U.S. access to watching world-class athletes and giving them some inspiration, the U.S. nationals is a really great way to do that.

It takes place in different places all over the country each year. We do autograph signings; kids get exposure to the ski team members. It’s just a great way to get out there and have people come and cheer us on. It’s a really fun environment.

What has it been like for you to interact with younger fans, especially at events like in Aspen? Little girls watch you race and say I want to be just like Mikaela.

It’s special. Even being in Europe, the kids are so excited about ski racing. Ski racing is huge in Europe, especially in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany. That’s where the sport is big. Obviously these kids know what’s going on.

When I get back to the U.S. and I go to those races in Squaw Valley or in Aspen, and we see the huge turnout of fans – the entire elementary school comes out to support us. They all play hooky because they want to watch the racing. That’s the kind of stuff that really inspires me. I think it’s just as cool for me to see that as it is for them to see us all racing. Because it reminds me of not very long ago when I was that kid who just wanted to catch a glimpse of Bode Miller or Lindsey or Ted (Ligety). I didn’t even care if I met them, I just wanted to see them in person.

When you’re hearing kids screaming at you (in Europe) in English, they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, I love you’ or ‘I hope you win.’ That’s really cool too.

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Girls Sports Month: Mikaela Shiffrin on being the best skier in the world and fans inspiring her
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