Alpine skiers explain: “What Mikaela Shiffrin taught me”

Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships
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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.”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.