High in the mountains on the best ski runs on the planet, Mikaela Shiffrin spent this past winter casually checking a few things off her to-do list: Earn the most career women’s slalom wins. Done. Break the record for most Alpine-skiing victories—male or female—in a season. Check. Become the only skier to win the overall, super-G, giant slalom, and slalom championship in one winter. Yep. At this rate, the New York Times reported, she’s on track to win as many as 125 Alpine World Cup races—39 more than the current career record.
When I ask her how that feels, Shiffrin cringes. She may be one of the greatest athletes in the world, but asking her to bask in her own glory makes her blush. “I mean, whenever I hear that, I'm like, Put a little asterisk in the fine print and be like, ‘If she continues this way,’” she says.
“The thing that motivates me in my skiing is feeling like I'm never actually good enough. My technique can always be better, or the line that I'm taking through the gates can be better, or there's a faster way to ski, or I could be cleaner on my edges. After every single run I've ever taken, I'm always like, I can do better than that."
This is the one thing you really need to understand about Shiffrin: She wants to be the best.
Right now, she is. Shiffrin is ranked as the number-one female Alpine skier in the world by a truly insane margin—she has nearly double the wins as the number-two skier. “When I was a little girl, I dreamt about being the best ski racer in the world. So this past season was huge,” she says. “It means, wow, I’m actually achieving the dream.”
Her relentless pursuit of total ski supremacy isn’t about the high of winning or the glory of clinching a spot as a once-in-a-generation athlete. She wants to be the best skier in the world simply because she loves it. “One of the things that I love so much is that I have the opportunity to inspire people to ski,” she says. “I know for a lot of people who don't ski, or are just learning how to ski, you're like, ‘Why am I doing this? It's cold, it's hard, I'm falling, I'm bruised, and tiring.’ But the feeling you get when you make a clean turn, the exhilaration you feel is so addicting. It's like nothing else on earth. It's probably like driving Formula One—except you're not in a car; you're racing down an icy mountain on two little planks at 90 miles an hour. It feels like flying, and I'm totally addicted to it. When I'm on snow, I'm like, ‘Whoa! I like this, this is cool.’”
The Biggest Victory
Shiffrin’s meteoric career is the stuff Disney movies are made of. She’s a sucker for those feel-good tales of athletic heroism (she’s partial to Miracle), imagining her next win playing out as a montage with a triumphant soundtrack when she’s grinding it out at the gym. “I’ll think about that as the reason I'm doing these sprints or these squats or whatever it is,” she says. “I want to get to this moment. I want to be strong enough, and powerful enough, and good enough to be there.”
For this, she misses Christmas at home, spends months at a time on the road, and usually doesn’t see much more of the exotic cities she stays in than the hotel Spin bike. She obsesses over technique, always learning from her competitors, even the ones she crushes. She wrestles with the constant nagging feeling that she could be better. “It's interesting because, once that moment actually comes, it never feels nearly as inspiring as it does when you watch it in a movie,” she says with a laugh. “When I actually win the race, I'm just like, ‘Man! I'm tired.’”
Despite her insane record, Shiffrin, at 24, is mindful of the price of training to be the best—injuries, the kind that can end careers, are never far from her mind. “My biggest goal is to be the best skier in the world,” she says. “That doesn't necessarily mean to be the most-winning skier in the world.”
A brutal crash in 2015 kept Shiffrin off the snow for two months—she wasn’t a fan of rehab life. “I made this choice and I was like, I don't need to push myself to the brink of disaster every single time, because I would much prefer to spend the majority of my career actually racing, not rehabbing,” she says. She’s also learned from those who have come before her, strategically skipping races to avoid pushing her body to the point of burnout. “If you're overtuckered mentally or physically, you start to lose awareness, then you’re just flailing down the mountain,” Shiffrin says. “If I feel like I'm starting to get overtired to the point where I'm not going to be able to make good decisions, I’m not going to race. I think that I'm one of the few athletes who takes it to such an extreme that I would bow out of races that almost everybody else would compete in, but I want to make sure I'm protecting the longevity I hope to have in sport.”
All good athletes have winning records. But truly great athletes have a fire, whether you know anything about their sport or not, you can feel their excellence. It’s euphoric—stronger than the high of watching one of the greats win a championship or an Olympic gold. It’s the unique feeling of being pulled into the fun.
The power of that isn’t lost on Shiffrin. Growing up in the sport, she idolized Tina Maze, one of the greatest skiers of all time. “I think it was my second year racing in the World Cup circuit and she podiumed in almost every single race—it was arguably the best season that anybody's ever had,” Shiffrin says. Maze had some surprising advice for her: “She said, ‘Don't do this, it's exhausting, it's tiring, and you lose your passion.’ You could see on her face: She wasn't enjoying it.” Maze’s words are always echoing in her head. “If I ever feel like I just don't want to see a mountain for a long time, then it's probably time to retire, I guess.”
You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to understand the burnout. Taking something you love more than anything and turning it into your paycheck—your legacy—changes it. Good thing Shiffrin loves the work. “I love the grind of the season,” she says. “It can get monotonous at times to be doing it every single day, but I still really love it. When I'm able to get through an incredible push of races that I know is just going to be grueling, and come out on the other side and feel like I've enjoyed it, I think that's the biggest victory.”
Elevating Her Sport
Shiffrin is very much not thinking about her retirement. With a current tally of 60 World Cup wins, she’s happily barreling toward GOAT status. But she has started to think about her legacy and how she wants to leave her sport.
“The one thing that I’m sure about is that I want to have pushed this sport to a higher level,” she says. “I want to get to this coming season and still be one of the top racers, but also be pushing my own limits, pushing the limits of the sport, and pushing the other girls to push themselves.” Shiffrin wishes she’d had that when she made her pro debut at 16. “In order to perform your best, you have to be able to feel confident,” she says. “In order to feel confident, you have to feel like the people around you are supporting you, like they're care about you, like you're in a safe space. All my teammates were a lot older than I was, so they had different interests. I was just alone.”
Now as a veteran on the U.S. Ski Team, Shiffrin is doing what she can to make sure the younger women in the sport have the best setup to smash their own records. She wants to make sure they feel secure and confident on the world stage and on the road, shepherding them through the stressors, however minuscule, that can feel all-consuming when you’re scared and alone and away from home. “All those little pieces are part of my way of helping to build up the sport, and not only compete in it but help to elevate it,” Shiffrin says.
For now, Shiffrin seems more concerned about the present, using every second of her time on snow to push herself and her sport to be—you guessed it—the best. What all those record-breaking runs mean for her future legacy is less important right now. “Records are made to be broken—that's part of the reason I don't necessarily care about breaking records, because, hopefully, somebody is going to come up and break at least some of my records,” she says. “Otherwise, I didn't do a good job of inspiring anyone."
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Originally Appeared on Glamour