Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

World's Best Slalom Skier Prepares For Olympic Event


Slalom skiing is one of the oldest sports at the Winter Olympics. And today in Sochi the focus will is on one of the youngest competitors. Mikeala Shiffrin is from Vail, Colorado is only 18 years old and she's the best in the world right now at slalom, but that doesn't guarantee anything at the Olympics. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The day after Mikeala Shiffrin arrived in Sochi, she took a few questions from reporters. And you could tell that some of the journalists in the crowd had already pre-written this as one of the three classic narratives of the Olympics: A nervous young skier faces the glare and pressure of her first Games. Well, there's one small problem with that framing.

MIKEALA SHIFFRIN: I've been here before in my head, for sure. So to everybody it's my first Olympics, but to me it's my thousandth.

SMITH: Athletes always talk about visualizing their perfect run. But Shiffrin lives in her head. She hadn't just visualized the ski hill. She had visualized us. This journalistic moment. Right here.

SHIFFRIN: I wrote all of this down. You know, all the questions you guys are asking. I wrote answers down in my notebook, just things that I'm - you know, trying to take out the variables. Thinking of things that I want to say and things that I want to feel when I'm in the starting gate.

SMITH: And for a moment, as reporters, we knew what it was like to compete with Mikeala Shiffrin. She thinks of everything before you do. The skiing world must have realized that at last year's Slalom World Championships.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) Mikeala Shiffrin.

SMITH: Shiffrin was 17 years old then and skiied a near perfect run. Even if you don't understand the announcing, you can tell how well she's doing .


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: When Shiffrin skiis the slalom, it's like watching a tango dancer. Her upper body barely moves, totally relaxed, and her legs smoothly shoot out to the side and she's around the gate before you can figure out what she's doing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: This particular world championship run has been analyzed over and over again. By Mikeala Shiffrin herself. She studies her own videos religiously. The joy, she says, is finding the exact winning moment.

SHIFFRIN: Getting in the finish and knowing that there was a point in the course where I rose above the conditions or whatever I thought I could do and I actually did something more spectacular.

SMITH: Hearing that calmness and that confidence, it is tempting to brush off the second great narrative of Olympics reporting. The over-confident young skier gets her come-uppance. And in her first race here at the Olympics, the giant slalom, Shiffrin faced a tough course. It was snowy and she was beaten by racers with a decade more experience.

Shiffrin came in fifth. The great downhill racer Picabo Street says that can either shake you up or make you more hungry for the next race. Picabo was the young phenom of her day, and she says that by the time you make the Olympics, it is all psychological.

PICABO STREET: The skiing is going to just take care of itself. It's all going to come down to what's between the ears and whether you can settle down and apply yourself. And the thing about her is she trains like she races and races like she trains. So she'll have a good advantage bringing that in. But it's tough when you are that young.

SMITH: But if anyone can deal with the mind games, it is the teenager who's already played a thousand of them. Mikeala Shiffrin has imagined winning, sure, but that's just the start.

SHIFFRIN: I've definitely visualized myself crashing because I know what mistake I made in my head to crash. It takes a lot of courage to be able to see that and then brush it away on race day, know that you've been through every scenario in your head, but treat it as if it's a brand new thing.

SMITH: I'm sure Mickeala Shiffrin has already thought of this, but there is a third classic narrative that could get written today. Talented young skier whom everyone expects to win does. And takes home the gold. Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.