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It’s a little strange for Vail’s Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller to be calling out Mikaela Shiffrin for skipping some events at the 2019 World Alpine Ski Championships going on in Are, Sweden, right now, and it reminds me of Phil Mahre’s criticism of Miller back in the 2000s.
Miller (33 World Cup wins), Mahre (27), Vonn (82) and Shiffrin (56) are the runaway Mount Rushmore of American ski racing. Miller and Mahre rank 1-2 among American men for career wins, and 9th and 11th on the all-time men’s list. Vonn and Shiffrin are 1-2 among American women and 1-3 on the all-time women’s list.
But on Friday, Vonn, who races in her final event Sunday in the downhill, retiring at the age of 34 with chronically painful knees, questioned why Shiffrin would skip the downhill and alpine combined to focus on next week’s slalom and giant slalom. Miller, retired as a racer and now a TV commentator, also wondered why Shiffrin wasn’t racing in every event.
“She could have won everything,” Vonn said of Shiffrin on Friday. Shiffrin responded Saturday on social media.
“I’m flattered by some recent comments by Bode and Lindsey saying that they think I would have been a contender in 5 events this World Champs,” Shiffrin wrote Saturday on Instagram. “However, as the one who has been trying to race in every discipline this season, and who has won in 5 disciplines this season alone, I can tell you that not a single one of those wins was ‘easy’. There is no such thing as an easy win.”
According to the Associated Press, Shiffrin, who won the super-G gold on Tuesday, was sitting out the combined (one run downhill, one run slalom) and the straight-up downhill (an event she’s only won once on the World Cup circuit) to stay fresh for her signature slalom and GS events. The EagleVail racer was worried about a repeat of last year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics when she says she tried to do too much and wound up fourth in the slalom.
Seems to me Shiffrin knows exactly what she’s doing. At the age of 23, she’s won 56 times on the World Cup circuit, is about to win her third overall title and has collected a total of eight world championship and Olympic medals in four different disciplines – an astounding six of them gold. That’s more gold than both Miller (five) and Vonn (three), and she’s clearly not done.
Shiffrin’s third overall title will tie Mahre’s three in a row in the early 80s, surpass Miller’s two season-long titles and leave her just one shy of tying Vonn’s overall American record of four. All at the age of 23. Vonn is retiring at 34, and Miller raced until he was almost 40.
Miller holds the American record with 11 total world championship and Olympic medals (five gold), but Shiffrin is just three short of that mark, and Vonn is first among American women with 10 total medals (three of them gold), so Shiffrin could tie that mark in Are next week. And, as previously stated, she already has more gold in her trophy case than Vonn and Miller.
Shiffrin also has twice as many Olympic gold medals as Miller and Vonn, who both won one each, in half the number of Olympic Games — arguably the only thing casual American ski-racing fans care about.
Which brings us back to why Vonn and Miller are questioning anything Shiffrin does at this point – except that Miller is actually paid for his commentary on TV, so there’s that. And he has a long history of speaking his mind on a wide variety of topics, from drinking and skiing to doping and skiing to climate change and skiing and nothing has changed now that he’s on TV.
And while Vonn has always been forthcoming with reporters — especially recently (see last year’s justified Trump-bashing before the Pyeongchang Olympics) — this seems like a needless jab at Shiffrin because of the two Vail Valley racers’ extremely divergent styles.
Shiffrin is very focused on all of the technical and strategic aspects of her sport. Vonn is a transcendent superstar who understands that most Americans don’t give a damn about ski racing and the only way to stand out is to star on TV programs, attend award shows, date celebrities and do lots of photo shoots. Shiffrin doesn’t want any of that, purposefully and publicly taking a pass on bikini spreads and refusing to be “objectified,” which in itself is a powerful statement.
Barring injury, Shiffrin will own almost every record in the end, which is something Vonn acknowledged in abandoning her pursuit of the overall men’s record of 86 World Cup wins owned by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark. But there’s one record – and it’s a biggie – that Shiffrin will never break, and that’s Vonn’s mark of 43 downhill victories.
Downhill is the glory event of ski racing, with speeds in excess of 70 mph, massive amounts of air off jumps and an almost incalculable degree of risk. Both Vonn and Miller started as tech-event (GS, slalom) standouts and then morphed into speedsters who excelled in downhill and super-G, so it’s possible Shiffrin could one day challenge their marks in speed. But doubtful.
And both Miller and Vonn paid the price for going big or going home – often doing so on sleds after spectacular crashes. Miller, for the most part, avoided the truly gruesome crashes that cost Vonn at least a couple shots at Olympic glory. But early in his career, Miller wanted to win on the edge or not win at all, and that attitude was what grated on Mahre.
Pretty much a pure tech guy like Stenmark – with all of his wins in either slalom, GS or combined – Mahre knew you could win overall titles by just finishing in the top five, so he took Miller to task in a 2004 interview with me that I re-posted on RealVail.com in 2008.
“Bode has the chance to win seven or more overall World Cup titles if he wants to, and it’s all a matter of whether he can get his head together to do it,” Mahre said in that 2004 interview in Vail. “I think he sets out to win it by two seconds, and whether you win it by two hundredths or two seconds, a win is a win, and sometimes you have to back off a little.”
When I circled back with him in 2008 after Miller passed his U.S. men’s record of 27 career victories, Mahre had this to say: “It really isn’t a record that warrants that kind of attention. It might be different if my name was Stenmark and it was that record being broken.”
For her part, Shiffrin says records dehumanize the sport, which is an interesting take from an athlete who is using every tool in the chest to systematically dismantle the record book. Miller and Vonn, meanwhile, lead lives so soaked in drama – much like the late, great Bill Johnson – that they inject over-the-top humanity into an otherwise somewhat cold, inaccessible sport.
However Vonn’s career ends on Sunday – improbably back on the podium one last time, well back of the leaders, or in the nets yet again – the sport will miss her desperately. She will forever be the downhill GOAT – not just in America, but around the world – and ski racing without Vonn will be a far more boring sport. Much like golf without Tiger Woods.