BY HANK MCKEE
“Do you want me to order you a pizza or something?”
That’s the question put to me by Mikaela Shiffrin, the 16-year-old
American slalom champion when I meet her for an interview at 5
p.m. late last spring. It’s the day before graduation, and the campus at Burke Mountain Academy is busy with students packing. It’s
windy, clear, sunny and as warm as the Vermont spring has gotten.
A storm is brewing but has not yet arrived. Shiffrin meets me in the
parking lot, points out the various buildings on campus and shows
me her dorm room. It’s tidy enough, under the circumstances.
Earlier in the day, Shiffrin has raced a leg of a relay that sends athletes through the entire state of Vermont. She has run through my
town of Duxbury, a two-hour drive away, but does not appear any
the worse for wear.
When talking to Mikaela Shiffrin, it is easy to forget you are talking
to a 16-year-old girl. There are a few giveaways. We do the interview at a picnic table outside the cafeteria. The wind blows her hair
a bit, and that bothers her. But her answers are generally articulate,
though she does, occasionally, skip to a new sentence if a better
She hesitates a split second before answering: “I play piano by
ear. I don’t read music or anything.”
Which rather explains her attack approach to life. Go out and try it,
whatever it is.
“My strength, I think, is I like to try just about everything,” says Shiffrin. “I’m not very good at hiking, I found that out yesterday. I hiked
the mountain with one of my friends and I went so slowly, and was
being eaten alive the whole time. I was like, Can’t we just get to the
(Slow? Shiffrin? The girl who won four NorAm races last season by
an average of 1.2 seconds, got a podium at the World Junior Championships and then took the national slalom title by a half a second
against U.S. Ski Team stars Sarah Schleper and Resi Stiegler?)
“For the most part I just try everything I do with enthusiasm,” she
says. “I think a lot — I tend to over-think things actually, but it helps
me if I’m trying anything new. I can see how somebody is doing
it, whatever it is, juggling, lifting, running, whatever it is. And really
think about their technique when they do it. I watch what they’re doing and I try to copy them, if they’re good. And it makes it easier.”
She says some of her friends tell her, “You are good at everything.”
She doesn’t believe that.
“No, I’m not good at everything,” says Shiffrin. “I just really, really
Shiffrin says she has always liked training for ski racing. The family — she has an older brother, Taylor — moved from Vail to Lyme,
N.H., when she was 8 and already a five-year veteran of skiing.
“When I was 2. 5 or 3 years old, my parents would take us in a sled
up the driveway and we would ski down in Vail,” she recalls. The
Shiffrin family eventually moved from New Hampshire back to Vail,
which she considers home.
In her early days in the Vail race program, says Shiffrin, she would
spend all her time in the gates.
“When I was little I hated freeskiing in Vail,” she says. “I would not
go out in the mornings to go freeskiing with my friends. I would just
wait until they had the gates set up and I would train, train, train.”
She answers the next question before it’s asked. “It wasn’t parent-