ARE, SWEDEN - During her inexorable rise to someday becoming the most successful Alpine skier in history, Mikaela Shiffrin has been shooting some admiring glances at another young female athlete excelling at her chosen sport.
And she, too, is emerging from the shadow of an all-time great.
“Somebody I’ve been watching lately, and I’m really excited for, is Naomi Osaka,” Shiffrin said Tuesday. “I think that she at least seems like a really nice, down-to-earth girl, trying to do her job and coming up the ranks in a sport that has Serena Williams, the face of tennis.
“Watching Osaka and seeing how she handles herself competing against one of her biggest idols has been pretty cool for me to see.”
While Osaka, the winner of the last two Grand Slam tennis tournaments and — at only 21 — the new No. 1 player in the world, is just starting on the long road to emulating Williams, Shiffrin is already close to eclipsing Lindsey Vonn’s record-breaking exploits.
Fifty-six World Cup victories. Two Olympic gold medals. Four world championship golds, with possibly two more coming in Are, Sweden, this week. Shiffrin is on course to obliterate perhaps every skiing record in the book.
At 23, and with Vonn newly retired, Shiffrin is the face of skiing — whether she likes it or not.
“In my own head, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, the face of ski racing,’ ” she said, laughing.
In Vonn’s farewell news conference after concluding her show-stopping career with a bronze in the downhill on Sunday, she included Shiffrin when listing the ski racers she believes need to step up and promote the sport in the coming years.
“It’s not just about success,” Vonn said. “It’s about doing everything you can to promote (skiing). That’s a part of your job as an athlete.”
Shiffrin is belatedly coming around to that train of thought, even though she says being a poster girl doesn’t come naturally to her.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the most self-confident person out there but I feel comfortable in my own skin and I certainly feel comfortable on my skis,” said the American, who described herself as “naturally a fairly introverted personality.”
“I would like to believe that just being a really kind person and a good athlete and having success is enough to promote the sport, but it’s not really. There needs to be some drama, some excitement, some really big personalities. For me, maybe I’m growing into that.”
This enhanced self-belief perhaps explains why Shiffrin felt emboldened to race only three events at the world championships, despite external pressure to go for gold in every discipline. She has already won the super-G and has strong gold-medal chances in the giant slalom and slalom on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
Her decision to skip last week’s Alpine combined, in which she would have been the favorite, surprised Vonn and Bode Miller. Indeed, Vonn said she didn’t understand it, saying Shiffrin had “100 percent the capability” of getting a medal in all five disciplines.
Back in Are after spending some days training across the border in Norway, Shiffrin expanded on a long and heartfelt Instagram post she posted in response to Vonn and Miller’s comments.
“I wasn’t disappointed. Actually I was really flattered,” she said. “I was incredibly honored that two of the greatest athletes in our sport said that they thought I could win in all events.
“The reason I made this post was because they both also said they thought essentially that I was wrong in making my decision and I have reasons that maybe they didn’t consider in making my decision.”
Shiffrin said she has “paid too much attention to all the expectations of other people” in recent years.
“This year, it’s been one of my goals to see that, to hear it, to understand it, and to let it go,” she said.
It’s an approach that was backed by Scandinavian ski greats Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Anja Paerson.
Aamodt, who won Olympic or worlds medals in all five disciplines during his career, called her decision “smart,” while Paerson, who won five medals — including three golds — on home snow at the 2007 worlds in Are, said: “I love that she’s taking her own way.”
The president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard sees no issue with Shiffrin picking and choosing her events, either.
“I think it’s great,” Tiger Shaw told The Associated Press, “that she’s smart enough to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to focus on the ones I want to win. And yes I can go in every event and I could probably win the downhill, too. But I’m going to race the ones I want to race. I’m me and everybody else can think whatever they think.’ “
Certainly, Shiffrin has no regrets this week as she goes for her fifth and sixth world titles.
“I’m a little bit fresher going into these races,” she said. “It almost feels like a second start to the world championships.”