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'Race this': Mikaela Shiffrin on her mindset, and her playlist, this ski season

Mikaela Shiffrin speeds down the course during the first run of an alpine ski World Cup women's slalom race, in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12.
Giovanni Auletta
/
AP
Mikaela Shiffrin speeds down the course during the first run of an alpine ski World Cup women's slalom race, in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12.

Even the winningest alpine skier of all time sometimes needs to pause and take a breath at the top of a mountain.

That's what you learn if you ask Mikaela Shiffrin if — despite her ability to do things no one else can — she ever needs to remind herself that hurtling down a race course is not only survivable, but something she's pretty good at.

"Short answer: Yes," Shiffrin told NPR.

Call it a normal part of returning to work after time off: Some of us forget a computer password, and others need a moment to get their brain and body ready to fly down ski runs at interstate speeds.

It's about having a healthy dose of respect for what you're about to do, Shiffrin said.

"Every single time I'm like, 'What am I doing? Why am I here?' " she said of her annual return to the snow.

Shiffrin, of course, has already shown everyone why she's here: to race, and to win.

The new World Cup season only recently got under way, but Shiffrin is already adding to her all-time record, which now stands at 89 wins. She's expected to race in Killington, Vt., over Thanksgiving weekend, in the only U.S. stop on the World Cup women's tour.

Just before the season started, Shiffrin spoke to NPR about how she approaches her sport, and the pressure of winning — and losing.

"You're not going for a Sunday stroll"

Winner Mikaela Shiffrin of USA celebrates on the podium after the women's slalom competition of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Kittilae, Finland, on Nov. 12.
/ Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images
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Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images
Winner Mikaela Shiffrin of USA celebrates on the podium after the women's slalom competition of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Kittilae, Finland, on Nov. 12.

When people talk about ski racing, they often use terms like "attack the mountain," or "carve out" time. So, what does Shiffrin think about when she's trying to trim tenths of a second off her times?

"The best way I can explain it is that it always boils down to training and preparation," she said. Like her mental check-in at the start of the season, she takes stock of what she's capable of before a run.

"Every day, I have a different maximum limit that I can ski at," Shiffrin said. The factors range from how her body feels to being comfortable with snow conditions, and her ability to see the fastest tactical line to ski.

"When all of those pieces are in place, all I really have to then think about when I'm at the start of a race is basically like, 'Race this.' "

"You're not going for a Sunday stroll," she said, echoing one of her coaches. "I am racing this."

On the course, it all about Shiffrin's mentality and intensity.

"When my intensity is up, I put power into my turns, I try to take the most direct line possible without skiing too straight and skiing off the course. So all of those pieces kind of come into place, and they all kind of wrap themselves up under this blanket of like, 'Race the course.' "

That might sound too obvious. But, Shiffrin said, "we all have different trigger words that help us get to that mentality, that help us ski the fastest we can ski."

Shiffrin uses music for focus, and inspiration

Mikaela Shiffrin arrives for the Time 100 Gala, celebrating the magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, in New York City in April.
Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Mikaela Shiffrin arrives for the Time 100 Gala, celebrating the magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, in New York City in April.

Music is a passion for Shiffrin, who plays piano and guitar and whose tastes run from KT Tunstall to Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi. She often plays music to unwind — but it also helps her focus before a race.

Ahead of the first World Cup event, she said, "I'll start building out a playlist for the season, that's kind of my specific training and race day playlist. It ends up being something I listen to a lot," punctuated by pop and current hits.

"There's always a lot of Taylor Swift in there. But there will sometimes also be some classical, some piano, just some instrumental songs. Pretty much anything that makes me feel more inspired," Shiffrin said. "I also have a self-reflective playlist, and I don't listen to that when I'm racing — because I don't want to be reflecting, I want to be inspired."

She doesn't listen to music when she's training, but songs fill the car on the way to and from the slopes. If the scene at the race course is too distracting, she said, "I'll put my headphones on and I'll put on light piano music."

"There's all these chill study playlists out there, and somehow it interacts with the beta waves in the brain or something, it helps you focus. So, sometimes I'll do that."

What should young athletes know?

In recent years, Shiffrin has pulled off an unlikely feat: she's been crowned the greatest athlete in her sport, while also winning new fans for the fortitude and humanity she showed in the face of disappointment. At the Beijing Olympics, she didn't finish several races.

Asked what advice she would give to young athletes who are facing pressure and trying to find their way, Shiffrin stressed that it's normal to struggle.

"Anything you do — probably in life but definitely in sport — you have to go into it knowing that you're going to fail," she said, "and knowing that it's probably going to be painful, because it's supposed to be. If you care about the thing at all, then it should hurt and be disappointing."

Remembering that, Shiffrin said, helps her focus on getting better, to turn a clinical eye on things that need to change.

"I find that sometimes in the most emotional, difficult moments, you have to take your sense of self and ego out of it, and just know that that is something that happens to everybody," she said. "It will happen to everybody. You will not avoid it."

Using the last Winter Olympics in Beijing as an example, Shiffrin says she went to China thinking she might win another medal. Her training, preparation and skiing were there. But when she raced, the results weren't.

"It's just like, sometimes it doesn't work. And that's kind of a thing to keep in mind is, no matter how much work you do, sometimes it doesn't work," Shiffrin said. "But overall, in the grand scheme of things, you will come out in a better place."

"It's like there's highs and lows no matter what," she said. "But you will feel that this whole journey was worth it."

Shiffrin's early victory adds to an all-time record

So far in the young World Cup season, Shiffrin has taken first place in the slalom at Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12, winning despite nursing a bone bruise in her knee and initially trailing her top rival, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia.

The win allowed Shiffrin to reset her own all-time World Cup record: Last season, she broke Ingemar Stenmark's 86-win mark that had ruled the sport for longer than Shiffrin, 28, has been alive.

By tradition, her victory in Finland also meant Shiffrin was also given a reindeer — which after much public speculation she named Grogu, for the "Baby Yoda" character on The Mandalorian.

"His mannerisms are so funny and he's simultaneously adorable and badass," Shiffrin said of Grogu. "Last year during the season, I started to use him as inspiration when I would get nervous at races."

As it turns out, you can use reindeer to measure greatness: With her Levi win, Shiffrin now owns the women's World Cup record for most slalom wins at one venue. And with seven reindeer to her name, she's just two short of a full Santa complement.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.