But for now, carve out just one. A week before Christmas, she was six victories shy of Vonn’s out-there total of 82. A reasonable question might have been: Can she catch Vonn this season?
Turns out the question should have been: Can she catch Vonn this month? Shiffrin’s results since then: first, first, first, first, first, sixth, first.
The latest came Sunday in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, a giant slalom in which Shiffrin beat the field of Olympic and World Cup champions in the first run by almost a quarter of a second and in the second by two-tenths. The total sum was 77 hundredths of a second faster than Italy’s Federica Brignone. In ski racing, that’s a rear end-whupping. Shiffrin has no peer at the moment. She’s about to have no peer in history.
“I was so nervous in the second run, though,” Shiffrin told reporters Sunday in Slovenia, in an audio shared by the US Ski and Snowboard Association. “I don’t know exactly why, because I said that I don’t care about the number and I just focus on the skiing. I was just more nervous than maybe I’ve ever been.”
Which, given her history of battling nerves, is saying something. Yet the evidence: “I have a rash on my face from it. I don’t know. Just happy to be here now.”
She should be. It’s also worth considering this and filing it under the “scary” category: As she reaches territory traversed by only the greats, records that would normally be achieved at the end of a career, she may well be skiing better than she ever has. She is hyper-analytical — and sometimes hypercritical — of her skiing. Yet how she is racing now? It’s almost perfect.
“I hope someday I can ski like that again,” she said, “because it was maybe the best skiing I ever did in a GS.”
There are no guarantees, of course, and how Shiffrin skied Sunday does not predict how she will ski the remainder of the season. Her best season to date was 2018-19, when she won 17 times and reached the podium four more times in 26 starts. This season, she has eight victories in 15 races. There are eight more technical events — slalom and giant slalom, Shiffrin’s specialties — before the World Cup schedule wraps up in March. Given that she has five victories in her past six starts in those disciplines — and given that she also has a victory this season in super-G — anything seems possible, both this year and in her career.
Should Shiffrin pass Vonn — the first opportunity comes in a slalom event Tuesday night in Flachau, Austria — next up would be Ingemar Stenmark. The great Swede won the last of his 86 World Cup races in 1989, when he was a month shy of his 33rd birthday. The entire pursuit should be driving attention to a sport that can use it, particularly in the United States, even as Shiffrin tries to shove the chatter into a box, lock the clasp and throw away the key.
“Maybe at some point people will stop talking about it,” Shiffrin said. “I’m trying not to think about it. Honestly, I really, I’m trying not to change my goals for this record. Yeah, but it’s 82 victories. It’s a bit indescribable.”
But it’s worth trying. That she and Vonn sit even makes it easy and tempting to compare them, to argue about who’s better. They are, though, decidedly different athletes and people. Although both won races across all of the alpine’s disciplines, Vonn thirsted for the speed of downhill and her little sister super-G, in which she posted 71 of her 82 World Cup wins. Shiffrin’s 51 slalom victories are more than anyone in history, and Sunday was her 17th in giant slalom.
Shiffrin, in a phone conversation in November, put it best: “What I do, it doesn’t change anything that happened in her career.”
Nearing history, Mikaela Shiffrin is still pursuing perfection
For her part, Vonn appears to be getting wistful about her mark being approached, now tied and almost certainly to be passed. Late last week on Instagram, she posted a shot of her trophy case in her new house, packed with what are now skiing artifacts.
“With all this talk of records, it has me reminiscing,” Vonn wrote. “… Now it’s time for the next generation! Picabo Street inspired this 9-year-old girl to ski 90 mph down a mountain, so I can’t wait to see what the generation of skiers Mikaela is inspiring will do next.”
There’s still the matter of what Shiffrin will do next. As Vonn’s total appeared inevitable — even if no one could see the freight train that made it attainable in early 2023 — Shiffrin carefully tiptoed a line, trying to make clear that she would be honored to set a new mark and respect what Vonn did in forging her own groundbreaking career but also establishing that she was not and is not and will not be motivated by the numbers.
Which is fascinating, given where she is in her career. At 27, that would be in her prime. Vonn raced until she couldn’t anymore, her body broke too many times that she bowed out at 34, four victories shy of Stenmark’s record, which she so coveted.
Even in the middle of this run, Shiffrin has been open about mulling retirement. Her father died nearly three years ago, and she has wrestled with the strains and pressures of competing and traveling since she made her World Cup debut at 15, two days before her 16th birthday. More than a decade of this life takes a toll, and if you’re not motivated by the records…well, then, there are times to question why it’s worth doing at all.
“If I surpass it, to be honest, I hope that it doesn’t change anything that I felt about what I did to get there or the motivations I had,” Shiffrin said in November. “I just want to be honest about how I feel and why I’m doing it. If I were to surpass any of these records and just stop immediately, I would kind of show that I wasn’t being genuine about what I’ve said all along about why I do this and what I enjoy about it.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’ll find out if I’m an honest human being or not.”
Here’s betting she is. The numbers may not be motivating, but that doesn’t mean they’re not intriguing. Next is 83, and 86 and 87 aren’t far behind. Beyond that? Ninety? One hundred? The territory is uncharted. But if the motivation is the process and the pursuit of perfection rather than the records and recognition, then who’s to say there are limits to what Mikaela Shiffrin might do in her sport?