Before she had a license to drive, Mikaela Shiffrin was already going above the speed limit, up to 90 miles per hour. At age 15, the alpine ski racer turned heads as she swooshed down the mountain at her debut in the 2011 World Cup, a series of elite-level international competitions. Two years later, the 5'7" high school senior won her first World Championship and became the youngest American to push out of the big leagues' starting gate since 1985.
Now Shiffrin, 18, is a favorite to medal at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. She earned her ticket to Sochi when she won silver in the giant slalom (her second best event behind slalom) at the World Cup in Beaver Creek, CO.
"Beaver Creek is a very technical and steep course. I was really happy to get second place and even happier about my big chance to go to the Olympics," says Shiffrin, who missed nabbing her sixth World Cup victory by 0.09 seconds. Winning, right then, didn't matter as much as 1) finishing in the top three in giant slalom (her previous best was sixth), and 2) automatically qualifying for her first Winter Games. After all, she had been working toward this goal since learning to glide on plastic skis at age 2 in her parents' driveway.
"Whenever we went around the room in kindergarten, saying what we wanted to be when we grew up, I was the girl who always said, 'I want to be in the Olympics,' even though I didn't know what that meant at the time. I'm excited to finally get to experience it and meet the other athletes," says Schiffrin, who is some 10 years younger than most of her seasoned peers, including 2010 Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, 29, who she's often compared to.
And now, with Vonn officially out of the Olympics, all eyes are on Shriffin.
"For so long, Lindsey has been the face of the team. It's a lot of pressure for her and she's been able to handle it, but I'm hoping that everybody on the team is going to pull their own weight. If you're wearing the jacket, you are representing the U.S. You have a job to do. I take that very seriously. It's not about one person winning a medal, but the whole team winning," she says. Shiffrin herself is planning on bringing home a medal or two.
"It's going to be a tough year for everybody to fight for that top spot on the Olympic podium, but that just makes it more exciting," she says.
It helps that she's had an injury-free career, but that's partly because it's been a relatively short one so far. "Most of my teammates have had to take at least two years off because of an injury at one point or another," Shiffrin says. "I'm just coming onto the circuit, so I haven't had many chances to get injured. At the same time, I'm pretty methodical in my approach to skiing and I don't really take more risks than I feel necessary. I try to race at 90 percent and have that be good enough," she says.
Imagine what she can do at 100 percent. Perhaps win gold? —Cristina Goyanes