On December 2nd, 2018, Mikaela Shiffrin won her first super-G in Lake Louise, Canada. It took her nine career starts in the discipline before she was victorious, but with that win, she became one of seven female athletes to have ever won in all five major disciplines – super-G, downhill, slalom, giant slalom, and combined. Over the last two weekends, Shiffrin swept the field in Courchevel, France where she won both the giant slalom and the slalom, making her the youngest alpine athlete to ever hit the landmark of 50 wins. Then in Semmering, Austria on the Saturday following Christmas, she won her 36th career World Cup slalom.
Six female ski racers in history have won in all five major disciplines, Shiffrin will make that seven. She joins the ranks of American Lindsey Vonn, Slovenian Tina Maze, Croatian Janica Kostelic, Austrian Petra Kronberger, and Swedes Pernilla Wiberg and Anja Paerson.
It is a massive accomplishment that only 12 other athletes have achieved. Impressively, three of them are Americans, more than any other country on the elite list, one being Vonn, the other being Bode Miller. Shiffrin’s success received some recognition on Twitter from other “overall club” members, like Tina Maze and Vonn.
After her win, the U.S. Ski Team and the FIS were publicly denoting Shiffrin as the only person, male or female, to ever win in six disciplines (six including parallel slalom), which in turn sparked some controversy. It’s true, Shiffrin is the only athlete to have achieved that milestone. So, why have major media outlets, such as NBC, ESPN, and the Denver Post not been pushing that statistic?
Currently, parallel slalom is not a “stand-alone” event, meaning an athlete cannot win an overall title in parallel. Under the current point system, any points accrued during parallel races count toward an athlete’s slalom points. Parallel slalom was first contested on the World Cup circuit in the 2017/18 season in Courchevel, France, where Shiffrin beat Slovakian Petra Volhva.
Herein lies the debate – is parallel slalom considered a sixth discipline where a sixth discipline has yet to exist before?
According to the FIS, yes. In coming seasons, the organizing committee plans to establish parallel as its own globe event, starting in 2019/20, World Championships by 2021, and the Beijing Olympics by 2022. The process started with city events being added to the schedule and now parallel slalom and giant slalom are designated individual races. By incorporating the event into the program in previous seasons, the FIS hopes to have it fully integrated to the point where it is widely accepted before it becomes an event where an athlete can win an overall title.
Atle Skaardal, the FIS’ Women’s Race Director, says the move into parallel as a sixth discipline is only natural in the evolution of the sport. Fans have changed, the way the sport is consumed and consistent snow conditions are now unreliable. In FIS’ eyes, parallel has the unique opportunity to open the sport up to new audiences and re-engage old fans.
“We think and we hope that it could be attractive to a new kind of fan base and be something that also the existing fan base thinks is a great addition to an already existing program,” says Skaardal. “It’s something which could be, I hope, successful in summoning connections. So we can present our sport in areas where a lot of people are living or staying. Not all the time out in the mountains. For instance, it would be amazing to do an event like this in Boston or New York or Montreal.”
While Skaardal and the rest of the governing body aims to be open to new directions and continues to develop, optimize, and maximize the sport in the eyes of an ever-changing market, growth in viewership and in the sport’s financial sector is not the only factor driving the parallel train forward. The incorporation of parallel races is also geared at re-engaging athletes.
“[Parallel is] tough because you need to focus on your own run. If you are paying too much attention to the other guy or girl on the other side it’s very difficult to ski technically well and this can create stress situations for the racers which give them different results. So it’s maybe different racers with different qualities that will actually do well in the future of parallel skiing compared to slalom and giant slalom,” says Skaardal. “I think if you have seen parallel races you can see that the racers are having great fun. They are smiling in the finish area, and this is not always the case in other events.”
As of 2018/19, FIS’s database tracks parallel and city events separate from slalom due to the event’s different format and style, despite the points still going toward Overall and Slalom Cup standings. Also to be noted, is the fact that parallel slalom is not factored into the World Cup start list for slalom. The field is still in the early stages of development.
This causes some fans to believe that FIS is pushing the statistic that Mikaela Shiffrin is the only athlete to have ever won in all “six” disciplines to follow their agenda of integrating parallel into the calendar as a “crystal globe” event. Prior to Shiffrin’s stardom, the opportunity to excel in a sixth discipline did not exist. Athletes such as Petra Kronberger of Austria, who are a part of the “overall club members” did not have the opportunity to race in the parallel slalom, because, at the time of their reign, the event was not contested.
Even if parallel is not yet officially considered a separate event, there is no denying that the course is technically unlike anything the athletes have seen on tour. To be successful in parallel requires a different kind of mental toughness, as well as a different kind of physical fitness. Although runs are shorter, if an athlete wants to make it to the big final, he/she will have skied seven head-to-head races to get there. Even the start is completely different. Athletes push out of a pull start (which resembles a skier cross start) to enter the course. In later rounds, some athlete’s starts open a bit later than their competitor, to even the playing field.
Paul Kristofic, the head coach of the Women’s Alpine team at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, says despite its classification, parallel slalom is so different that it’s something athletes must learn and practice in order to have a shot at winning.
“Parallel slalom or city events you have essentially slalom setting but with panel gates right, so the technique is quite different than regular slalom. People have experimented with different kinds of techniques, and the course setting is, I think, evolving, as we have more of these parallel events as we try to figure out what’s the best way to present the event. Parallel slalom or city event is classified in the slalom category but the technique to it is quite different so you have to practice it, learn it. It’s a challenge. It’s not that easy,” says Kristofic. “It’s a really heavy thing and you need to be physically ready to do it.”
A win in the parallel slalom is a similar feat as winning in all of the other five disciplines because it is so distinct in technique in nature.
Whether she is now one in seven to win in five disciplines or the first person ever to win six disciplines, Shiffrin’s accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable. At the age of 23, she has 51 wins under her belt. With her last win in Semmering, she surpassed Italian legend, Alberto Tomba on the all-time World Cup win list. On the women’s side, she has surpassed Austrian Renate Goetschl to take fourth in the overall standings. Vonn currently holds the most wins by any female racer at 82, followed by Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proll at 62, and Swiss-woman Vreni Schneider at 55.
This season, Shiffrin has won eight of the 14 World Cup events contested, across four disciplines. She has surpassed her childhood idol, Austrian Marlies (Schild) Raich with 36 slalom wins. She currently leads the race for the overall by 466 points. After winning five races in a row across four different disciplines, Shiffrin could stand to beat her record of 12 wins in a season. Schneider currently leads the women with 14 total wins in a season.
Even Marcel Hirscher, who holds a similar ranking on the men’s side of the circuit, agrees that what Shiffrin has accomplished is incredible. Hirscher is currently tied with Ingemar Stenmark and Hermann Maier for most wins in a season, 13 overall.
“Mikaela is very inspiring and she is unbelievable,” he said after his giant slalom win in Val d’Isere. “Hopefully, she is not overpowering because she is really skiing a big program and I know what it costs to ski so many races especially slalom, GS… I mean Mikaela is skiing everything. She is really inspiring and hopefully, she can perform for a very long time. Mikaela is really able to break every record.”
Shiffrin started off as a star in the technical disciplines. First came slalom, then giant slalom. Then she decided she wanted to venture into the world of speed in her pursuit of becoming the best ski racer in the world. To branch out into speed disciplines, her coach, Paul Kristofic, says that building her technique to the point where she could safely participate and compete in speed events has taken a few years.
“Not only are you managing your training volumes in which events your training throughout a prep period but you’re also managing how much risk you’re willing to take. You need to take a fairly systemic process to get through learning those speed discipline tactics and techniques,” says Kristofic. “Whether it’s jumping, whether it’s aerodynamics, where it’s high speed gliding or off camber turns or running through compressions or flying off a jump with load on a ski, all of those things are things you need to practice in an environment that is conducive to that. So how challenging is that? Extremely, because you only have 50-60 days to prepare in a season before you start racing.”
So, when Shiffrin mentions in interviews that she hasn’t had time to train much of a certain discipline this season, she’s not being humble or attempting to downplay the possibility of an off-race. She quite literally, has not had the time. To manage a multi-discipline schedule, Shiffrin needs a team of people behind her that can help her navigate the stacked World Cup tour. Not only does she need to train and race, but she also needs to rest so that she has enough energy to handle her high workload. The key deciding factor is risk.
“There’s one thing to be able to participate in multiple disciplines, and another to be a contender to win in multiple disciplines,” says Kristofic. “Depending on the athlete and depending on the goals, [and we’re] talking about trying to capture a big globe, you need to look where your biggest chances are to score the most points, where do you have to have to take risks to score those points, are you ready to do that, where is it going to fall in when you need rest, how much time do you have to go into a big long series…things like that. So it becomes a real chess game of strategic planning and really knowing what your athlete is capable of and what their strengths are and what their potential risks are.”
Fortunately, Shiffrin comes with few risks, and that’s what makes her so capable. Between talent, commitment, and a capacity for a high workload, Kristofic says Shiffrin’s willingness to learn and do so quickly is the key thing that sets her apart from other athletes. She is dedicated to being a student of the sport, not just with her coaches, but on her own. She takes the strength and conditioning side of her program seriously and in turn is extremely fit. Shiffrin wants to challenge for a win in every race she starts and she’s dedicated to fine-tuning the minute details it takes to do so. She’s focused on the skiing, not the numbers.
“I just try to ignore the numbers when I race because I have to just focus on my skiing, and those numbers can be a really big distraction for me. It’s not really motivating, it feels more like pressure,” Shiffrin said after she earned her 50th win on Saturday, December 22nd, in Courchevel. “Behind every athlete is such a big structure of people who are helping, sponsors and family and friends, especially the coaches. When I’ve been looking at my coaches the past couple of days, I know they have 1,000 percent belief in me. And yesterday and today I believed in myself. I could kind of look at them and say, ‘you did your job and now it’s time for me to do mine.’”
That’s not to say that the athletes who have won in all five disciplines are any less accomplished or amazing in comparison to Shiffrin. The same workload, effort, and skill on the athlete’s behalf needed to win in all disciplines apply to all members of the club. And each member has influenced ski racing in their own unique way. At 34, Lindsey Vonn is still the winningest woman in the history of the sport. Bode Miller will forever be known as the man that changed what style of ski racing was “acceptable.” Tina Maze is the most successful Slovenian ski racer in history. All of these athletes had to manage their schedules, energy, and training in order to obtain “club member” status and become legends in the world of ski racing. The difference here is that as the sport develops and changes, Shiffrin has been presented with a new opportunity to succeed in areas that were not available to these athletes in their heyday, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The media, die-hard fans, and various working organizations can debate for days whether or not Shiffrin is the only person to have ever won in all six disciplines, or if she is now a member of the “club”. In the current state of the sport, she is technically both. Numbers should not take away from her achievements, either way, an accomplishment this great in our sport should be celebrated. And if Shiffrin is smashing stats already at 23-years-old, we can only hope that she will continue to find success in the ever-changing landscape of ski racing. Besides, there are more records to break and races to win.