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As Mikaela Shiffrin sizes up Olympic schedule, history shows potential obstacles

Mikaela Shiffrin

Winner US Mikaela Shiffrin reacts in the finishing area after competing in the Women’s parallel slalom race during the FIS Alpine ski World Cup on December 9, 2018, in Saint Moritz. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Mikaela Shiffrin races in the U.S. for the only time this season this weekend, in the spotlight at a World Cup stop in Killington, Vermont (broadcast schedule here).

All slopes lead to Beijing in February. Shiffrin, a gold medalist in 2014 and 2018, has repeated in interviews that she wants to enter all five individual events at her third Olympics: downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined.

“A very aggressive game plan,” she said earlier this month. “I don’t know if that’s going to work.”

The plan was the same in 2018. It didn’t work because of weather, evidence that any strategy in Alpine skiing is written in pencil.

High winds postponed the start of Olympic competition by three days in South Korea and compressed the schedule. The giant slalom, slalom and super-G were supposed to take place over a six-day span, but instead were on back-to-back-to-back days.

Shiffrin, tired from winning the GS and its post-race commitments and then placing fourth in the slalom the next day, skipped the super-G and then the downhill before taking silver in the combined.

“It wouldn’t have been safe to race,” the super-G and downhill given her exhausted state, she said.

Consider this history as Shiffrin takes another run-up to the Olympics with five events in mind: No skier who entered all five at one Olympics won more than three medals total or more than two golds, according to Croatian Janica Kostelić won three golds and a silver in 2002, racing four events (arguably more impressive than doing it in five, but still different).

Alpine skiing is not swimming, gymnastics or track and field, where Olympic icons like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Carl Lewis gobbled medals (and were expected to). The 12 Winter Olympians with the most medals come from biathlon, cross-country skiing and speed skating. No Alpine skiers are in that group.

“There really are a handful of people that can win in all disciplines in a single year, and that’s over the history of the sport, not just the last decade,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said.

Shiffrin took the conventional path to becoming an all-around skier, starting with slalom and giant slalom, then cautiously dipping into the riskier super-G and downhill. These will be her third Olympics. Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn entered five events at the Olympics for the first time in their third Games, too.

Taking on a full load is more the exception in these days of increased specialization. Smaller nations are producing talent in slalom and giant slalom. Any time Shiffrin spends racing speed events (or training them) is time taken away from staying sharp in her prioritized technical events.

PyeongChang marked the first Olympics that zero male or female skiers -- who earned at least one medal -- raced all five events since the super-G was added to the program in 1988.

“It’s harder to do today than it’s ever been,” Porino said of being an all-around skier. “When you’re facing the people that do have the opportunity to train to their heart’s content [in one or two disciplines], that makes the job all the harder.”

The three most recent women to race all five individual events at one Olympics, and come away with medals, reflected on the types of challenges that could await Shiffrin in Beijing.

Maria Höfl-Riesch: Two golds managing conditions

German Maria Höfl-Riesch, a four-time Olympic medalist who retired in 2014, was the rare all-around skier whose best events were the extremes of downhill and slalom.

On the season-long World Cup, most weekends with a downhill also include a super-G. And most weekends with a slalom also include a giant slalom. So it made sense to race everything, even if giant slalom was a weakness.

“I never thought about skipping events,” she said. “Of course, for big events [Olympics or world championships], it would maybe make sense. But you never know. I knew I could do [well] if there’s the right day and if I have a little bit of luck on my side. It never happened in GS, but it could have happened. I always had a chance.”

Höfl-Riesch rolled into the 2010 Vancouver Games ranked second in the world in the downhill, the first event at the Olympics, and first in the slalom, the last event.

She placed eighth in the Olympic downhill after the two women in front of her crashed, extending her wait in the start house several minutes (again, variables in ski racing).

Höfl-Riesch then won the combined (one run downhill plus one run slalom). Gold medals carry extra time commitments, such as media, but she saw it as a positive for the rest of her program. Particularly the slalom, which wasn’t for another nine days.

“Once you win a medal, everything goes easier,” she said. “The big pressure was gone, and I was much more relaxed.”

The slalom carried two significant challenges. Höfl-Riesch remembered it rained most of the week leading up to the event, but her coach insisted she train through the terrible conditions.

Then there was Austrian Marlies Schild, Höfl-Riesch’s primary slalom rival who didn’t race anything else at those Games.

“I was a little bit tired from all the season already and also from the Olympics,” Höfl-Riesch said. “But, the big pressure was on her because she was only concentrating on the slalom. It was her only and biggest chance. And so I think it was even a mental advantage for me that I already had the [combined] gold medal in my pocket. When you have that, automatically more energy.”

In the fog and snow that she trained for, Höfl-Riesch beat Schild to become the second woman to win two gold medals while skiing five events at an Olympics.

Höfl-Riesch said that before her retirement in 2014 (after illness limited her to four events at the Sochi Olympics), Shiffrin’s team spoke with her German coach about how Höfl-Riesch logistically made it work racing a full schedule.

Lindsey Vonn: Goal was one gold medal

Vonn also raced all five events at the 2010 Olympics, but her goal was singular: one gold medal. She got it in her best event, the opening downhill, after a trying buildup.

Vonn went more than a week without skiing leading into the Games due to a deep right shin bruise. Poor weather delayed the start of competition by three days and altered the downhill course for training runs.

“So there was literally no prep,” said Vonn, who still benefited from the precious extra time to heal and won gold by the largest margin in 16 years.

In the next races, Vonn was fastest in the downhill portion of the combined but hooked a tip in the slalom run (she failed to finish her three World Cup slaloms leading into the Games).

Then in the super-G, she earned a satisfying bronze medal -- after five of the first 11 starters crashed or skied off course -- while lamenting not risking more late in her run.

Vonn had two medals, including her goal of one gold, in her three best events. She never considered skipping either of the last two races, giant slalom or slalom, despite not being a medal favorite.

Vonn was fastest in a foggy first run of the GS before crashing about 20 seconds from the finish line. She straddled a gate in the opening slalom run two days later.

“I just have a different approach, I think, maybe than others,” said Vonn, who at the 2006 Olympics skied four events after a nasty downhill training crash. “I always thought I was a contender, in any race that I entered.”

Vonn’s mindset: If you enter more races, you have more chances. Even if meant, for Vonn, that 90 percent of the time she didn’t get sufficient practice.

“The pressure is sometimes less,” she said. “Because you always know, after the first race, you have four more.”

Tina Maze’s advice that Mikaela Shiffrin won’t forget

In 2013, Tina Maze had arguably the greatest season in Alpine skiing history. She raced in all 35 World Cup events, plus all five world championships events (one gold, two silvers) and amassed 2,414 World Cup points, shattering the single-season record.

At the end, Maze confided in Shiffrin, who had just turned 18, won her first world slalom title and had not yet tested herself in speed events.

“Don’t do every [World Cup] event. It’s so exhausting,” Shiffrin said Maze told her, recalling the conversation in 2017. At the time, Shiffrin had a goal to get to a point where she could race everything. She came closest in 2018-19, starting 26 of 35 World Cups and winning a record 17 times. Shiffrin remains selective on downhills and super-Gs on the five-month-long World Cup, heeding Maze’s advice.

Maze, a late bloomer from the small nation of Slovenia, raced in all five events at every Olympics and world championships from 2010 through 2015. She won multiple medals each time and at least one gold in four of the five major championships.

“I didn’t want to miss any race, because every race, I saw an opportunity to learn and to improve,” said the retired Maze, who preferred racing to practicing more than the methodical Shiffrin.

Maze said that competing and training in every discipline left little time for adjustments, such as trying out new equipment to adapt to the weather or course.

That played a role in her first event of the 2014 Olympics, the super combined. Maze didn’t have the right boots for the warmer-than-expected conditions and ended up fourth, one tenth of a second off the podium.

The next race was the downhill. The night before, Maze visualized her run, crossing the finish line for victory. She cried. Slovenia never had a Winter Olympic champion, and after the combined miss, this was going to be her best shot.

“The stress in Olympic Games, handling it and being a favorite, it’s not easy to handle all of those expectations that you have and that everybody else around you has,” said Maze, who struggled in the season leading up to Sochi, changing coaches twice. “Even I was watching this year’s Olympics and seeing [Simone] Biles, how she’s struggled there being so perfect otherwise, as an athlete, as a performer.”

Maze’s visualization proved prophetic. She tied for downhill gold with Swiss Dominique Gisin, then won the GS outright six days later.

Mikaela Shiffrin’s Olympic turn

Shiffrin’s racing schedule will be talked about plenty the next two-plus months. It also came under scrutiny at both world championships in this Olympic cycle.

In 2019, in the middle of her incredible 17-win World Cup season, she chose not to race the downhill nor the combined at worlds after winning the super-G in Åre, Sweden. She instead spent the time preparing for the GS (she earned bronze) and slalom (gold).

Her two golds and one bronze in three events at 2019 Worlds marked a better medal haul than any skier has brought home from doing all five events at an Olympics.

“My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start, and to have the kind of longevity in my career that will allow me to look back when all is said and done and say that – for a vast majority of the duration of my career – I was able to compete and fight for that top step rather than being sidelined by getting burnt out or injured from pushing beyond my capacity,” she posted on Instagram, explaining her decision. “It is clear to me that many believe I am approaching my career in a way that nobody has before, and people don’t really understand it. But you know what?! That is completely fine by me, because I am ME, and no one else.”

In 2021, Shiffrin entered worlds having just gone a full year between putting on longer skis for training speed events. She chose to enter the super-G and the combined anyway, on about four days of super-G practice. The result: a bronze in the super-G (on track for gold before a late mistake) and gold in the combined (with a super-G run rather than downhill) by the largest margin under the current format since 2007.

She also earned giant slalom silver and slalom bronze, meaning she has finished fourth or better in her last 13 Olympic or world champs starts, with medals in 12 of them.

“Podium in every event that I skied at the world championships is going to raise the expectations for the Olympics,” she acknowledged before this season.

But it doesn’t change the unpredictability of ski racing, evidenced by the obstacles faced by the all-around skiers who came before her.

Shiffrin, who already had early season training curtailed by a back injury, called the Olympics “funky,” for lack of a better word, because of the variability. These Olympics in particular, given nobody will have raced at the venue before the Games begin.

“I can to try to relax a little bit about the plan and try to be optimistic,” Shiffrin said, “and also, when the time comes. we’ll have to be realistic as well.”

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