Alpine skiers explain: “What Mikaela Shiffrin taught me”

Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships
Getty Images

Author’s note: Two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin is one of the greatest alpine skiers of all time. Since making her World Cup debut in 2011, the 26-year-old has tallied 69 wins, third most of any skier in history. Last month at the 2021 World Championships, Shiffrin became the most decorated U.S. alpine skier in world championship history, taking the lead for most career world titles won by an American (6) and most world medals won by an American (11). 

Since I started covering alpine skiing in the lead-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, I have often heard other skiers mention – usually in passing – the impact that Shiffrin has had on their own careers. These tidbits are usually sandwiched in the middle of interviews, provided without much context. But I’ve always been curious to know more about what exactly Shiffrin has taught them or inspired them to do. 

So ahead of this week’s World Cup Finals,  I asked several of Shiffrin’s teammates and competitors, as well as her coach, “What has Mikaela Shiffrin taught you?”

Here are their responses, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Nina O’Brien

Member of the U.S. ski team since 2016

“One of the most specific things that Mikaela has taught me is how to approach every race hill. A lot of people think you show up on the morning of a race and you inspect the course and then you make a plan. But one thing I’ve learned from Mikaela is that she really has a plan on how to attack the hill and how to approach that specific track – the night before, the day before, before she even sees the course.

On multiple occasions, she has sat down with me before races to talk about where we are, what the hill looks like, whether it’s steep or flat, and what she thinks about in terms of plan of attack: where you can push and where you maybe need to ski a little bit smarter.

A few years ago – a couple days before the World Cup opener in Soelden – Mikaela brought some of the girls up to the race hill. We hiked up without any of our ski stuff on. And we just took a look at it and the really steep pitch. And she helped us pick a point – somewhere towards the bottom of that pitch – where we could let it go and sort of transition from that steep skiing into pushing on to the flats…  When [I was] inspecting the next day, I visually knew the point where I could start going straight and pushing more. So those little tips are huge.”

Michelle Gisin

Member of the Swiss ski team – Has competed against Mikaela on the World Cup circuit since 2013

“There’s a lot of professionalism in [everything Mikaela does]. At a very young age, she came to the World Cup. She’s even younger than me, [but I started] looking up to her because she had this way of working towards her goals that is extremely impressive… You always want to learn from the best. The way she approaches races – but also training – is extremely impressive to me…. Everything that she [does], it seems that she’s doing it on purpose. I think it’s maybe one of the most important keys to all of her success, because there’s just so much purpose in everything she does.”

Bella Wright

Currently in her first year as a member of the U.S. ski team

“I had a conversation [with Mikaela] in December after Val d’Isere. I had a rough race series there; I didn’t ski like myself. It was my first races of the season and I was very nervous… And she just talked me through how to take notes and learn from it… And what helped me the most is [when Mikaela] told me: ‘Keep your expectations low and your standards high.’

After she said that, I ended up scoring my first World Cup points of this season in St. Anton. I felt like I could trust that I know what to do, but it doesn’t mean I have to go out and win.

There are so many talented [skiers] out there… We’re all competitors. [We’re] friends, but you do want to come down at the end of the day and have the fastest time. And with Mikaela… I have this different relationship. She is so great, and she makes skiing look so effortless. I know it’s not effortless for her, but she just makes it look so beautiful. And then I’ll get on the same course and it’s like ‘Woah, that was not as easy as she made it look!’

So it is so inspiring to see her ski the way she does. I’m like her biggest cheerleader, [Even if I’m] competing against her, if Mikaela does well, I’m happy. I think it’s just because… when someone is as gracious and amazing at skiing as she is, you can’t help but always learn from them and be inspired by them.”

Steven Nyman

Member of the U.S. ski team since 2004

“Mikaela’s awareness and her focus is what stands out beyond everything [else]… [When we’re training together in Copper], I’ll joke with her in the start gate. I’ll yell stuff or tease her, just trying to distract her. And then later in the day, I’ll be like, ‘Sorry if I was annoying,’ and she’s like, ‘Huh? What did you do?’ Her ability to just hone in on what she needs to do – and how she needs to accomplish – it is pretty impressive.

There’s a professionalism and respected approach to every single run she takes. There are a lot of [skiers] that… just do the same thing over and over and over again. And they think the more they ski, the better they’re going to get. It’s easy to go through the motions. It’s easy to ingrain bad habits. And [Mikaela] doesn’t do that. She knows that there’s a finite amount of time that we have on the snow. Every time she goes down, she can either become better, or she can become stagnant, or she can become worse.”

Mike Day

Mikaela’s coach since 2016 

“[Mikaela’s] performance over the past five seasons has been historical. It’s really [shown me] what’s possible in the sport of ski racing, and truthfully for that matter, sports in general.

She’s taught me about process and being process oriented and staying committed to the process, regardless of the results… [What sets her apart] is hard work and persistence; she outworks the competition… And now, I think resilience certainly comes into play with what she’s been through in the past year, and how she’s been able to battle back and stay committed, [always] falling back on the process.

When I started with her, I had an image of what it meant to be a World Cup athlete [in terms of] training volume… So I had a good idea of what I thought appropriate volume was, and then [Mikaela] sort of blew my mind… I think when you’re technically as efficient as she is – and as advanced as she is – you can still produce high volume and also have high quality… So I think she’s really showed me not only what’s possible from a results perspective, but [also] from a preparation perspective, from a learning perspective, from a volume perspective.”

Breezy Johnson

Member of the U.S. ski team since 2014

“One of the major things that [Mikaela] taught me – from a young age – was how to take the sport seriously… When I went to [my] first Whistler Cup, we were rooming together… I’ve always had a very intense outlook on the sport and have always been really driven by my effort… [But] there were conversations [where some people were telling me], ‘Breezy, you need to have more fun and be less serious.’

I remember sitting down and having conversations with the whole Shiffrin family and they were like, ‘You want to serious about the sport. If you want to go somewhere, you have the be serious… and that’s a good thing. That’s something to be applauded.’

That was a really big turning point in my career because it allowed me to realize that those coaches [who told me to be less serious] were wrong… It allowed me to embrace who I naturally was: a somewhat intense person who really wanted to work hard and really wanted to accomplish things… [The Shiffrins] really took me seriously. And they took my dream seriously even though I wasn’t remotely close to Mikaela or even the best of the rest of the heap of people who were there.

There’s is one thing Mikaela never taught me. When I first met her, she could bob her head sideways, like a chicken… She never taught me how to do that, but if she wanted to teach me how to do that now, I’d be down.”

MORE: In these sports, “Equal Pay Day” is years away

NBC Sports is proud to celebrate Women’s History Month.
For the latest in women’s sports news and features all year round: 

Bookmark the On Her Turf blog:

Follow On Her Turf on Twitter and Instagram