Anyone who is a fan of alpine ski racing—and if you’re reading this article, you must be—you can’t help but feel immense amounts of excitement, pride, and inspiration following the gold-medal-winning performances put on by Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin at the recently completed World Skiing Championships in Schladming, Austria.
Though it’s easy to marvel at their physical prowess and technical and tactical acumen, given that my work is about the psychological side of our sport, I am, not surprisingly, most interested in their mental and emotional make-up and how their personality styles, though very different, have produced similarly spectacular results. In fact, on the surface, Ted and Mikaela couldn’t be more different.
Ted’s nickname, Shred, pretty much describes him to a T. He is, at age 28, a very cool dude (or whatever the younger generation calls people they admire). BTW, did you know that Ted’s middle name is Sharp? How has that not made it into the headlines? In any event, as his recent skiing has demonstrated, Ted skis with abandon, attacking the course from top to bottom, creating unbelievable angles, and seemingly on the edge of disaster every run. He has made hand dragging, often a means of survival for him, a much emulated technique by young racers (one that often leads to broken hands!). His extreme “stivots” before the rise line in the world championship GS will, I’m sure, become legend in the ski racing community, much like Franz Klammer’s amazing mid-air recovery in the 1976 Olympic downhill and Ingemar Stenmark’s remarkable hip-check recovery in the 1980 Olympic GS. Though I don’t know Ted personally, he strikes as, well, a wild man (in the most positive sense of the phrase). And I’ve seen him at Mt. Hood several times and, though not a big fellow like, say, Svindall, he has a real physical presence. What makes Ted so successful, in my view, is his supreme confidence and his ability to risk it all to win.
Then there is Mikaela Shiffrin. At age 17, she is preternaturally cool, calm, and collected, mature beyond her years. One thing is for sure, she is sorely in need of a nickname (how about “MiCoola”?). In any event, whereas Ted seems to be all over the place on course, Mikaela always seems to be in control and rock solid. I’ve seen her train and race several times and I don’t recall ever seeing her off balance. I’ve known Mikaela (though not well) since her early years at Burke Mtn. Academy and interviewed her for an article I wrote about her a few years ago. Mikaela is humble quite reserved, hardly what you’d expect from a girl anointed as the next Great One from an early age. And if you saw Mikaela in a room among, for example, her Burke teammates, you’d never pick her to be the best slalom ski racer in the world. What makes her so successful, in my view, is her healthy attitude toward competition, her concern for process over results, her steely focus, and her consistency of mind, body, and skiing.
Which brings me to the point of this article, namely, that alpine ski racing can have two great champions who are so different in so many ways. You can throw in Bode, Lindsey, and Julia, and you have an even wider range of personalities, all of which led them to greatness. Yet, Ted and Mikaela also share many essential qualities for success including a maniacal determination, a deep faith in their capabilities, the ability to handle pressure, and a positive response to setbacks.
So, what’s the point of this article? I suppose it’s to show how alpine ski racing is open to different ages, personalities, physical types, and skiing styles. And that bodes well for the many young racers who aspire to follow in Ted’s and Mikaela’s footsteps to the top of the mountain and perhaps even to the top of the podium.
Jim Taylor, Ph.D., competed internationally while skiing for Burke
Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. Over
the last 25 years, he has worked with the U.S. and Japanese Ski Teams,
many World Cup and Olympic racers, and many of the leading junior race
programs in the U.S. and Canada. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer’s Mind, produces the Mental Edge for Alpine Ski Racing Relaxation and Imagery mp3 recordings, and publishes bi-monthly e-newsletters for sport, business, and parenting. You can read Jim’s past skiracing.com here. To learn more or to contact Jim, visit his website.