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behind the scenes: training with mikaela shiffrin
Becoming a champion skier takes innate talent, lots of hard work and great commitment. But in this day and age, it also takes a team. Behind every successful World Cup skier there is a well-oiled support apparatus. The outstanding American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is no exception.
an exceptional athlete
At the age of 21, ski prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin has a skiing palmarès that many experienced racers would die for: Olympic gold medallist, two-time world champion, three-time World Cup slalom champion. Last season, despite missing eight weeks to injury, Mikaela added another five World Cup berths to her tally and grew the total to 20 career victories. Remarkably, she won all five World Cup slalom races in which she competed, with a combined winning time of 10.56 seconds. That represents a 2.11 second average margin of victory; massive in a sport like ski racing!
it's teamwork
Admiring Mikaela’s rhythmic skiing, you begin to wonder whether there is some magic plan that she followed to become the world’s best slalom skier? Undoubtedly, becoming a champion skier takes innate talent, lots of hard work and great commitment. But in this day and age, it also takes a team. Behind every successful World Cup skier there is a well-oiled support apparatus. Mikaela Shiffrin is no exception. Mikaela has always been able to count on the support of her family, especially her parents and brother. Both former ski racers and her mother even a Masters competitor, Mikaela’s parents Eileen and Jeff have been an integral part of her career. Mother Eileen joins most of the training camps and travels to all the races to ensure consistency around her daughter. Her older brother Taylor, too, grew up skiing and competes in the US collegiate circuit for the University of Denver. In addition to her family, Mikaela relies on the support of her manager ­Kilian ­Albrecht and the programme provided by the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). The USSA coaching staff are led by head coach Mike Day, who joined the team in July 2016 to work specifically with Mikaela. Another key person behind-the-scenes is head strength and conditioning coach Jeff Lackie who is supported by Mikaela’s physio therapist Lindsay Smith. Lackie is in charge of Mikaela’s physical preparation, travelling with her one week out of three during the off-season and full-time during the racing season while providing daily training planning all season long. Lackie has been working with Mikaela for the last two seasons. A former NorAm ski racer who learned to ski at the small Devil’s Glen ski area outside of Toronto, 36-year-old Lackie joined the team after having worked successfully with the Canadian women’s tech team for two seasons and with the provincial ski team in his native Ontario before that. “It’s very rewarding to work with Mikaela. She is an amazing athlete. And great athletes also teach their coaches: it is a two-way street and as a coach I, too, learn on a daily basis”.
what does it take to ski like mikaela shiffrin?
“Mikaela is an anomaly. She has an extremely high level of coordination but she is also very receptive to guidance and her will to improve is extraordinary. I have never seen an athlete come to the training session – be it on the snow or in the gym – with such a deliberate intensity to want to get better. Most top athletes are skilled and well-coordinated. But many rely on their native ability. Mikaela is a unique case of a skilled athlete who combines a massive drive, great focus and relentless commitment to getting better every single day”.
Longines Ambassador of Elegance Mikaela Shiffrin and her conditioning coach Jeff Lackie.
Essentially, Mikaela is like a really well constructed Swiss watch, with the same level of precision.
a family affair
Malcolm Gladwell, the English-born Canadian journalist, award-winning author, and speaker has examined how a person’s environment, in conjunction with personal drive and motivation, impacts his or her chances for success. Besides the 10’000 hours of practice that are required to master your craft, Gladwell emphasises the person’s upbringing and family dynamics. Lackie agrees. “Mikaela’s parents have played an enormous role in her development. Both parents are ski enthusiasts and have created the perfect family environment for Mikaela to thrive. Throughout her early years, they ensured excellent training conditions and placed a lot of emphasis on the process of her becoming a technically excellent skier”.
precision of a swiss watch
Interestingly, Shiffrin grew up training rather than racing. Her parents put a premium on practising rather than racing. Instead of spending hours to travel to races every weekend, she put in thousands of training runs – drills, gates and guided free skiing. Skiing both the powder in Colorado, where she was born, and the ice on the US East Coast, where she went to school, helped develop the finely tuned balance and precision that Mikaela is now famous for. “There are no secrets or silver bullets here. While most athletes slip into a state of complacency thinking that 80% is enough, the Shiffrins and Mikaela’s coaches during her early career always focused on delivering 100%. They have practised with the intent to be perfect. Like timekeeping, skiing is all about precision. Essentially, Mikaela is like a really well constructed Swiss watch, with the same level of precision”.
an ill-timed injury
In December 2015, Mikaela sustained a knee injury during her warm-up in Åre, Sweden. She ended up missing five of the season’s ten slalom starts. Obviously an injury in the middle of the 2015/2016 competition season was ill-timed. How does a highly driven, world class athlete deal with such a situation? “There’s no question, the timing of the injury was frustrating. Mikaela was skiing better than ever just before it happened, and won in Aspen with a huge margin. But because she has a long career ahead of her, we did not want to rush her return to racing. Naturally she would have liked to come back sooner. But she is also rational and very head-strong. Rather than being blinded by ambition, she was willing to listen to other people and focus on getting healthy first. She responded well to therapy and training and then skied equally well after her injury, coming right back to be the dominant force in slalom in her comeback race in Crans-Montana in 2016”.
what’s next?
Where can we expect Mikaela’s development to go from here? Besides her skill in the tech events, she’s likely to be a force to be reckoned with in the combined and even speed races, and with that, in the overall World Cup. “Already last season, we planned to explore racing in other events over and beyond slalom and giant slalom. That plan was always dynamic and dependent on whether it made sense given her level of confidence, quality of training and energy. The tech events will remain our priority but we are also including some speed in her training regime. Like last year, the camp in Chile focused on speed and we plan to add super-G and alpine combined into her racing program when it makes sense. In any case, we are training to prepare Mikaela physically to be able to handle the racing in more events in the future. Competing in speed events requires exponentially more energy given all the additional training, testing, racing and travelling that it involves. While Mikaela is a phenomenal athlete we will be focused on improving her strength and fitness in the next two years”.
the perfect package
Mikaela’s has a bright skiing future. The question is whether she’ll become the top contender for the overall World Cup title already during the current season or in the next few seasons. She certainly already possesses the perfect package of talent, focus and maturity well beyond her young years. “The best skiers are not the strongest but they are the most effective in coordinating their movements. Our goal is to hone Mikaela into a well-rounded package with the strength necessary to manage the strains of a full World Cup schedule. She already has an amazing ability to coordinate her movements and an impeccable balance of timing and precision”