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Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin masters the downhill in her spare time

  • Author: Victor Mather, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 8, 2018
  • Published February 8, 2018

Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S. heads to the finish line during her first of two runs in the Women’s Giant Slalom race during the FIS World Cup in Aspen, Colo., March 19, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times file)

Mikaela Shiffrin went to the 2014 Olympics as the 18-year-old favorite in the women's slalom. She won, transforming herself into the heir to Lindsey Vonn as the United States' top skier.

This time around, Shiffrin, 22, is the favorite again, having dominated the World Cup season. But another slalom gold may not be enough. Shiffrin is winning giant slaloms now, too. And she startled the skiing world by winning a downhill over a shortened course in Lake Louise, Alberta, in December.

Shiffrin is suddenly a threat to medal in every Alpine event at the Olympics.

She says one of her motivations for expanding her repertoire is simply having some time on her hands. "I feel like, if I'm only racing nine to 11 races in a season, which is a slalom schedule, then maybe I should just get another job, too," she said.

In Pyeongchang, Shiffrin will first face her specialties, the technical events: the giant slalom and slalom. Based on her form this season, she may well come out of them with two gold medals.

"For the past few years, the biggest step, the biggest challenge for me, has been to improve my giant slalom and be the best," she said. "And I'm trying to incorporate the speed enough so that when I'm able to really go for it there, I'll have the experience."

Mikaela Shiffrin during a panel discussion at Casa Tua in Aspen, Colo., March 13, 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The speed events, the super-G and the downhill, will follow at the games. (Shiffrin has not committed to exactly which races she will enter.) The individual events end with the women's combined, in which she would ski both slalom and downhill.

Shiffrin said in Sochi that she hoped to win all five gold medals in four years' time. Remarkably, she made the statement at a time when she had competed internationally in only the slalom and giant slalom.

Even the top skiers are usually good at technical or speed events, but not both. Vonn has more than 70 World Cup wins, but only two are in slalom. The current dominant male skier, Marcel Hirscher, has won six straight slalom titles but doesn't bother with downhill.

"I think there's quite a bit more thinking in slalom, in a way," Shiffrin said. "It's a lot about being extremely precise on the gates. I don't want to say you don't think in downhill, but it's a different kind of thought. Because in downhill, you don't want your thoughts to get in the way at all."

For Shiffrin, the plunge into the sometimes dangerous events like downhill has been exhilarating, if a little scary.

"Every single second," she said, "it's like, 'I'm on the edge, and if I make one wrong move, I'm going to blow off the edge of this mountain.'"

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