The Mikaela Show
The return of World Cup skiing to the East and the meteoric rise of 'the single most dominant athlete on the planet.'
It might sound crazy now, four years after the first Killington Cup, but a quarter century had passed during which there were no professional ski races held in the Northeast.
Nada. Two and a half decades of disrespect. The birthplace of the American ski industry, the location of two Winter Olympic games, and home to a higher per-capita percentage of race teams than anywhere else in the hemisphere, yet still an afterthought on the international race circuit. But that all changed in 2016, when it just so happened that a certain graduate of the Burke Mountain Academy was starting to come into her own.
Ever hungry for the local angle, regional news media were already mentioning Mikaela Shiffrin alongside the news that World Cup skiing was coming to Killington. The Hartford Courant, for instance, quotes Shiffrin up top. “It’s like coming back to Vail for the World Championships (in 2015) after so long. I know that the East Coast, the people, the ski racing fans, they are so excited for this race. I can’t wait to bring ski racing back to them.”
And so she has. Rarely has a stop on the professional ski racing circuit been as intertwined with a racer’s career as Killington is with Mikaela Shiffrin’s. It draws the biggest crowd of any professional race event, male or female, in North America, and it’s one of the largest on the mostly-European circuit. All of the marketing material, from the NBC News coverage to the regional newspapers to the branded totebags, feature Shiffrin either mugging for the cameras or busting around gates. She’s queen in these parts, and everyone’s in for the ride.
At just 24 years old, she’s on one of the most impressive career arcs of any skier in history, and was recently described by Sports Illustrated as “the single most dominant athlete on the planet, right now.”
The “right now” part always seems at the front of this exceptionally unguarded star athlete’s mind, and it results in one of the most earnest (and marketable, it must be said) personalities in recent sports history. She’s comfortable in the spotlight, often joking with reporters, and she’s not afraid to get weird in interviews. “Do you guys watch Schitt’s Creek?” she asked the gathered press in an attempt to relate her experiences with one of the characters on the show. Not many had, so she sidestepped the analogy by describing how she had come to settle into her nerves on the Killington stop over the past four years/ With high-profile ad sponsorships by Barilla pasta and Land Rover following her Olympic medals and World Cup wins, Shiffrin has become one of the most recognizable athletes in America, and her recent Sports Illustrated profile focuses in on the athlete’s struggles to come to terms with her place in sports history. It’s the profile of a superstar on the cusp of G.O.A.T. status – a.k.a., the kiss of death – but she doesn’t seem rattled.
Her light shines so bright that spokespeople for the event itself struggle to find ways to remind people that there are, indeed, other athletes racing at the event. “Does she make my job easier? Yes and no,” says Tom Horrocks, media chief for the Killington World Cup event. “She is so successful, and such a great person, and so fun to interview. But as an interviewer, the challenge is not letting her success overshadow the other athletes in attendance in front of a U.S. media audience. My goal has always been to make all the athletes feel welcome, just as the crowds do at Killington.”
We should all have such difficulties at work. But the plain fact of the matter is that the reintroduction of World Cup skiing to the Northeast happily coincides with the rise of Mikaela Shiffrin’s fortunes, and the combination couldn’t be better for the hopes of Northeastern ski racers everywhere. Last year’s festivities featured a fly-by from the Vermont Air National Guard’s F35s, and this year, governor Phil Scott was on hand to welcome the almost-20-thousand-strong crowd during Saturday’s crisp morning race heat.
Local shop owners have credited the World Cup race with helping to boost business, with some stores boasting a 15 percent increase in annual sales compared to the pre-Mikaela years, according to one VPR story. Killington reports a similar rise in annual skier visits. And Real estate sales are also up between 20 and 30 percent during the same period. The event has become, in a relatively short span of time, the East Coast ski event of the season. It’s also the single most popular sporting event of the year in Vermont, outpacing the Burlington marathon in attendance, according to Horrocks.
It’s the reason Phil Russell came with his two teenage kids from Nahant, Massachusetts. “We came to see Mikaela Shiffrin,” says Russell, in between racers during the Sunday afternoon Slalom heat – which Shiffrin would go on to win soon enough. “We come every year.”
This year’s Giant Slalom event on Saturday, November 30, brought out almost 19,500 race fans to the resort, and despite the midday threat of the season’s first big snowstorm bearing down on Sunday’s festivities, there were still 11,000 people who showed up to watch Mikaela Shiffrin rip her way to her 62nd World Cup win.
“I’ve talked about having nerves the first year,” she said Sunday afternoon, following her win. And though she’s gotten more comfortable with the event and her role in it, “this morning I was a little bit nervous, so I took a couple of extra warm-up runs.”
“It’s not like I felt slower during the second run, but I felt scrappy,” she said. After all, she said, she feels the expectations from the fans below. “I can hear them,” she said, “and their responses help me to keep pushing.”
It's a mutually beneficial relationship that has helped make the Killington stop on the circuit stand out from the others in North America – both in terms of attendance and the enthusiasm of the crowds. For even though many have shown up to see one of the greats compete and win on her semi-home turf, they are just as excited to see pro racers competing in this part of the country again. Ski race teams from all over the Northeast flock to the event as a team-building exercise, and Shiffrin has inspired hundreds of young racers to follow in her footsteps.
It is, in short, a huge success for all involved, and though the event is slated to return to Killington again next year, nothing is set in stone after that - though it’s hard to see F.I.S. turning down the opportunity to continue featuring a stop in Vermont. “The success of the Killington Cup over the past four years has been tremendous, and the International Ski Federation, and U.S. Ski & Snowboard would like to see it continue at Killington,” said Horrocks, referring to the future of the event, and whether there will continue to be a Vermont stop on the World Cup circuit. “There are discussions ongoing as to hosting of the event again next year, and an announcement will be made later next spring.”