On Sunday, Olympic alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin won her first-ever World Cup gold in the super giant slalom (super-G), event. With the win, the 23-year-old phenom became one of only seven women in history to clinch World Cup gold across all five disciplines of the sport—slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super-G, and the combined—joining the ranks of legend and fellow American Lindsey Vonn, among others.
Shiffrin barreled down the Lake Louise course in 1 minute, 19.41 seconds, eclipsing the second-place finisher, Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway, by 0.77 seconds. The victory marked the 46th career World Cup win for the Avon, Colorado, resident. You can catch a clip of the feat via Shiffrin’s Instagram, @mikaelashiffrin, here:
On top of the historic significance of her win—she's now tied for fourth place on the all-time women's World Cup win list—the super-G title proved that Shiffrin, primarily known for her technical skills and subsequent domination in the more technical ski events (the slalom and giant slalom), is a top contender in speed events, too.
Here, we break down the elements of Shiffrin’s winning run and put the victory in context with the help of Robin Barnes, three-time member of the prestigious PSIA-AASI national alpine team and level 3 skiing instructor who has worked with athletes on the U.S. Ski Team. Barnes is also a ski school director in Portillo, Chile, where many Olympians, including Shiffrin, train.
Several things stood out in Shiffrin’s World Cup winning race in the super-G.
The first: her confidence at the start. “Right when she pushed out of the start, she looked like she wanted to win,” says Barnes. “She was in attack mode compared to other racers. She doesn’t always look like that.”
Secondly, during the race itself, Shiffrin took a particularly challenging right hand turn at a more aggressive angle than many of other competitors. Also unlike many of her competitors, Shiffrin also didn’t let her skis drift sideways as she turned, which helped her maintain speed. “The nuance in that one turn stood out,” explains Barnes.
Mastering the super-G requires a combination of fearlessness and technique.
The super-G event, which combines the speed of downhill racing with certain technical aspects of the slalom event, requires a “balance of being technically good with being courageous and brave,” explains Barnes. “It’s about marrying technical skill with courage and willingness to throw yourself down hill at a super fast speed.” It also requires comfortability with jumping, says Barnes, and the ability to assume a tight, tucked position as you barrel down the mountain.
Traditionally technical skiers, like Shiffrin, aren’t typically comfortable in this tuck position, says Barnes. “One of the reasons she’s gained speed in the super-G is that she improved her tuck.”
Because of the intense speed the event demands—elite skiers will travel between 70 to 80 miles per hour, says Barnes—racers also need total body strength to be able to withstand the forces of said speed. On top of that, the event is “aerobically challenging,” says Barnes. It’s longer—in both time and distance—than the more technical alpine events, which means racers “have to be able to work hard for a long period of time.”
Dominating both speed events, like the super-G, and technical events, like the slalom, is rarity in the sport.
There are key differences in the types of athletes that tend to excel in the speed versus technical events. Speed skiers, explains Barnes, tend to be “big adrenaline junkies. They’re more hardcore.” On the other hand, athletes that focus on the more technical alpine events, including the slalom and the giant slalom, are typically more analytical in their approach, she explains. Training for either type of event requires serious time on the slopes. “The amount of hours and days that go into being good in any one of the [five alpine ski disciplines] is mind-boggling,” says Barnes.
The fact that Shiffrin has proven prowess in both speed and technical events is unique and impressive. Barnes attributes much of Shiffrin's well-rounded success to her steadfast focus on the fundamentals of the sport, which include having a balanced, functional stance, continuously keeping the weight on the outside ski when turning, and holding the upper body as still as possible as the lower half maneuvers down the mountain.
“She put in the time young in her career to work on fundamentals instead of going out doing a bunch of races and always trying to be fast,” says Barnes. “Her approach is not what you see everybody doing. Now she is mature enough [as an athlete] to apply those in different disciplines.”
With this win, Shiffrin, already one of the all-time best in the sport, carved a new legacy for herself.
At 23 years of age, Shiffrin is still considered a young skier (in terms of age, not accomplishments). “She has many years to go in her career,” says Barnes, and the fact that she’s already won gold in every single discipline is “an incredible legacy.”
As for this latest win, it’s further proof that Shiffrin “isn’t just really a good technical skier,” says Barnes. “People now recognize that she is a contender in all disciplines. It means that she can show up and hang with any skier that is out there.”
On top of that, in alpine skiing, “confidence is key,” says Barnes, and Shiffrin excels in that area as well. “She’s good at managing that and coming up with confidence when she needs to.”