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Hometown HERO – The Girl Next Door
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As Mikaela Shiffrin rode the chairlift to take her second slalom run at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, she began to tear up. It was the last chairlift ride of the night and Shiffrin was in the lead after the first run. She had her headset on and was listening to the song  “Atlas” by, Coldplay. The piece was one of the new theme songs for the movie Catching Fire, one of Shiffrin’s favorites.

“It was nighttime, yet it wasn’t too dark,” Shiffrin recalls, “and I could see that the clouds were beginning to dissipate. There was a blue cast to the sky, the stars were out and it was really quiet – like the tranquility that you’re always searching for.

“And I was listening to the song and it just started building, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to win this!’ It was a weird, random thought and it was all because of the song. If I hadn’t listened to that song, I wouldn’t have had the confidence. In all the races that I’ve won, there’s always a turning point that day – like a little moment – that makes me think, ’Yup, I’m going to win this thing.’

“That specific moment gave me all the confidence in the world. I was pretty nervous and I just started tearing up and I thought, ‘If you’re going to cry tonight, it’s going to be now, when nobody can see you. Not when the entire world is watching and you’re all welled up and looking ugly.’”

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“In all the races that I’ve won, there’s always a turning point that day… like a little moment that makes me think, ‘Yup, I’m going to win this thing.’ ”

Certainly not an unusual thought for a teenage girl who, that very night would become the darling of the world’s skiing community by winning a gold medal. And the fact that Shiffrin was young, genuine and refreshing only added to her celebrity. Immediately her radiant smile was all over the Internet and she came home to appear on the Jimmy Fallon Show, before embarking to the White House to meet the President and First Lady. This was quite a departure for this unassuming athlete – the youngest woman to win the Olympic slalom.

Soon, Shiffrin began to realize that winning a gold medal wasn’t a small feat after all. “On every plane I’ve been on,” she says, “someone has wanted an autograph or asks, ‘Can I get a picture with you?’ And they’re so apologetic. And I say, ‘Do not apologize for that. It’s so cool that you care about ski racing and sports.’ It’s really nice to see that support and all that enthusiasm.”

Shiffrin even marveled at the ease of her press conferences. “Before I left for Sochi, I thought about what reporters might ask me if anything happened,” she admits, “and I didn’t want to be unprepared if I were to be interviewed. I thought they might ask me some hardball questions and try to make me crack at my first Olympics.

“But instead, they were just normal questions that reporters might ask at every World Cup. They just replaced the words ‘World Cup’ with ‘Olympics’. It was almost disappointing,” says Shiffrin, with a giggle.

Like all world-class athletes, Shiffrin has her own way of preparing for a race or even, say, just practice runs. To begin, she has what she describes as a “pump-me-up” playlist of twenty songs. And they change each season. “I actually listen to them while I’m walking,“ she explains. “It’s almost a trigger when I hear those songs while I’m skiing. They remind me of the skiing that I’m trying to do. And I always test them out to my ski video to see if, when I hear the song playing, it ‘feels like’ skiing. I have to match the rhythm of the song to the rhythm of my skiing. It’s one epic mix of my twenty ‘pump-me-up’ songs.”

“All I can really feel is the immensity of the mountain behind me and that longing to get down as fast as I can. And that’s what I focus on at the start: just being in that zone and blocking everything and everyone out. And really enjoying the moment.”

“I think I have Tess on there and Coldplay. And there’s one classical song, by Vanessa May, the electric violinist,” Shiffrin adds.

Shiffrin admits that she’s gone through hilarious phases of trying to get in “the zone” before races. When she was younger, she says, she would psych everybody out by putting on a game face, even scaring her brother before one race – when he walked up to her to wish her luck – by giving him a cold look and yelling, “You’re not my brother, get away.”

Mikaela_Fan“He told me about it afterwards, and I didn’t even remember it at all,” says Shiffrin, with a laugh. “He thought I was so scary. It was at a start and I was just trying to block everything out.”

Finally, Shiffrin has it all figured out. “I listen to music to get into that zone,” she reveals. “It’s like the movie, Secretariat, for instance. And it’s right before he’s going out of the gate. Everything gets really quiet and all you can hear is the hum of the crowd and the horse’s breathing. That’s almost what’s it’s like for me at the start.

“All I can really feel is the immensity of the mountain behind me and that longing to get down as fast as I can. And that’s what I focus on at the start: just being in that zone and blocking everything and everyone out. And really enjoying the moment.”

Shiffrin continues, “Sometimes I wake up and I feel great. My legs are great, and my mind is great, and I’m ready to race, and it’s pretty easy to get in the zone. And sometimes I feel almost too good, hyper about it and it’s harder. And sometimes I wake up and I’m really tired and it’s hard to get my legs to move. So it’s a tricky balance of all the different energies you have floating around your mind and body.

“You have to be really flexible about it. If you’re tired in the morning, you have to figure out a way to wake yourself up. If you’re too awake, then maybe you should sleep a couple of more minutes and try to get yourself to calm down. It’s always that balance.”

These days, Shiffrin senses new pressures. “I don’t want to screw up,” she says. “A lot of 19-year-olds are in their first year of college and probably getting in some kind of trouble. It’s never too serious, but there’s something going on there, because that’s how college is.

“I think there are a lot of kids out there who are inspired by ski racing now-inspired by Lindsey Vonn and Julie Mancuso and Ted (Ligety) and Bodie (Miller) and now, I guess, they’re beginning to be inspired by me, and I definitely want to live up to that. I’m the youngest of the bunch and because I’m at the beginning of my career, I could really set myself up as being a huge inspiration to the younger kids in the upcoming years if I don’t do anything wrong. But, that’s not too difficult ‘cause I don’t really party that much.”

 

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“Take your victories, whatever they may be, cherish them, use them, but don’t settle for them.”

There’s no doubt that, over the years, we’re going to hear much more from Mikaela Shiffrin. It’s not even a matter of time. After her becoming an Olympic slalom champion, she capped off her World Cup season with one more slalom win, bringing the total to five. And, her next move, according to Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mother and coach, is to conquer a new discipline, the super-G, which favors skiers who make clean turns at high speeds on steep, technical terrain, something at which Shiffrin excels.

As expected, Lindsey Vonn is one of Shiffrin’s idols. “Lindsey has done wonders for the sport, in the U.S. especially,” Shiffrin says. “She broke through with her results and she’s beautiful and great at building her own brand. And she’s going to be around – even when she retires from skiing.

“I just want to create my own path and hope that people will understand. This is just what I’m doing now. It’s exciting.”

And “this,” is just a way of life for this outstanding athlete. Shiffrin’s training is careful and deliberate as she continues to expand her portfolio. She’s focused, conditioned and always prepared.

Mia Hamm, a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame once said, “Take your victories, whatever they may be, cherish them, use them, but don’t settle for them.”

Clearly, Olympic gold medal winner, Mikaela Shiffrin, is heeding this counsel.

 

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