In March, a student from Burke Mountain Academy became the youngest Women’s World Cup ski slalom champion in 39 years.
The eighteen-year-old athlete is now back at school cracking the books and hanging out with friends.
Sitting at a long table in the administration building under a painting of Burke Mountain, a smiling Mikaela Shiffrin looks at ease near the slopes where she first learned to ski.
When she was 8, her family moved from Colorado to New Hampshire so her dad, Jeff Shiffrin, could work at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. He had also raced for Dartmouth College, so he got his little girl on skis at an early age—at the Dartmouth Skiway and, later, at Burke.
“In the very beginning he taught me my basic kind of form, which is staying forward,” Shiffrin recalled. “His quote was ‘knees to skis, hands on front,’ and I was like three years old. And I’m in the harness, and my dad was like ‘knees to skis, hands on front,’ and I couldn’t even talk,” she laughed.
Shiffrin has also learned a lot about the sport —and life—from her mother, Eileen, who was also a ski racer. Now they travel the world cup circuit together.
“People tell me every day that I look so much like her and I act so much like her. And I take it as a huge compliment just ‘cause she’s always been the most focused and motivated person. She never takes no for an answer. She gets the job done and she doesn’t stop till it’s done. And just in life, she’s just such a strong personality and it’s really something I want to take into my life,” Shiffrin said.
Shiffrin takes her mother’s single-minded focus to skiing, even to the exclusion of a typical teen-age social life. And that may partly explain why Shiffrin tops the charts in grueling slalom events all over the world. Her first personal coach, now headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, says she is not—despite media accounts—an overnight sensation. Kirk Dwyer says it’s taken time and dogged practice to perfect her form, and that’s what sets her apart from other prodigies on the slopes.
“Some people become complacent or satisfied with the level. And Mikaela always has the desire with skiing as her art to look for how she can be more. And I really saw that at age thirteen, because it’s easy when everything’s going well-- what’s important is how you respond when you struggle,” Dwyer said.
Shiffrin did struggle in mid-March to clinch the world cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. After her first run she was down by about a second—huge in slalom events. Even her second run started tentatively, but she blasted down the bottom of the course. Her not- so-secret tactic? She hears music in her head when she skis.
“That’s part of—like when I see myself ski or when I’m imaging myself – there’s always a song playing. Or when I’m in the gate there’s something going on in my head that’s kind of musical.”
At school, she likes to play the piano, but she’s too shy to play in public. She does invite us to the school’s work-out room—not to bask in glory, but to cheer on her friends, doing as many pull-ups as they can manage, hoping, probably, to follow in her ski boots one day.