Could Mikaela Shiffrin become Michael Phelps of the slopes? 'Crazy,' but maybe

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Swimmer Michael Phelps owns 28 Olympic medals, including 23 golds.

Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin has one medal, a gold won in Sochi four years ago.

Comparing the two is, mathematically speaking, absurd. Considering there are only five Olympic ski events, opposed to many more in swimming, including relays, it’s essentially numerically impossible for Shiffrin to ever equal Phelps.

Which is why, when the 22-year-old from Vail, Colorado, was asked if she can be the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics, Shiffrin scoffed.

“You’re crazy,” Shiffrin said. “OK, he has what [28] medals? And I know it’s a comparison between sports [but] I don’t believe there is a sport in the Winter Olympics where you could win [28] medals across four or five Olympics.

“So, yeah, I could never imagine myself being in the same sentence as Michael Phelps. It’s extremely flattering but its apples and oranges.”

Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, speaks during a news conference at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP)
Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, speaks during a news conference at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP)

In terms of total medals, yes, it’s crazy. In terms of domination of a sport, it isn’t. And Shiffrin knows that.

She arrives here ready to turn the sport on its ear by potentially entering, and potentially medaling, in all five disciplines: downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and alpine combined.

Let’s repeat one part of that – potentially. Not likely, just potentially. Which should remind just how ludicrous such an accomplishment would be.

Only six women and five men have ever won a World Cup race in all five events. Only four of them have done it in the same season.

None have done it at the Olympics, let alone the same Olympics.

Just entering all five would be an incredible accomplishment and a feat of immense physical and mental strength. Yet Shiffrin is up for the possibility.

“I would like to compete in everything,” she said. “I’m not sure if I will have the energy to do that.”

This is where the Phelps talk originates. What if Shiffrin, over the course of the next three or four Olympics, racks up medals all over the mountain? Her tally may never reach 28, but it will soar to unprecedented levels for skiing.

Mikaela Shiffrin goes airborne during a training session at the women’s World Cup downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo. (AP)
Mikaela Shiffrin goes airborne during a training session at the women’s World Cup downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo. (AP)

Other than the fact it takes place on snow resting on a mountain, there are no similarities between slalom skiing and downhill skiing. Not at the Olympic level anyway. One is about the skill needed to maneuver a tight course of gates. The other is about pure speed.

In general, you can be good at one, but not the other.

Four years ago, when at 18 years old she became the youngest to ever win an Olympic gold in slalom, Shiffrin thought she would never be good enough at the speed events such as downhill. She had been a prodigy, turning pro at age 15, but there are limits.

“In Sochi, I thought no way that I’ll ever be able to do that,” Shiffrin said. “It’s too much. I don’t have enough experience. I’ll be a slalom skier forever. I’ll never be able to do speed.”

Yet over the past four years she slowly grew and developed. Speed began to come naturally. She’s now a podium contender in anything she enters.

“I knew I could be fast with speed but I didn’t think I would be able to put it together,” Shiffrin said. “Now I am here and I know that I can actually excel at all the events.”

Her greatest challenge will be mental exhaustion. The physical stuff, she can likely handle, but the relentless preparation, repeated visualization of the course and the weariness that day after day of competition brings can drain her.

She shrugged and said she has no idea what the next few weeks will bring. Maybe she’ll do it. Maybe she won’t. She’s been on a hellacious tear on the World Cup circuit, but she knows the Olympics are special.

Can she even hit the opening gate five times? Can she medal? Can she beat teammate Lindsay Vonn at Vonn’s best event, downhill, in a battle royal for the ages? If not this time, how about in four more years in Beijing, as she enters what is normally prime age for a skier?

Nothing is being ruled out. That alone has the mountains buzzing.

“I do have the opportunity to compete in four or five events at this Olympics,” Shiffrin said. “Right now, we are looking at any possibility.”

Phelps never knew he would become Phelps, never spoke of 23 golds or 28 medals. Still, the possibility for history was always there. He was so good and so young that he commanded the stage all the way back at his first Olympics in Sydney and then certainly as a main attraction in Athens.

Now it’s Shiffrin’s turn. And while putting a numerical comparison to chase is unfair, it isn’t as apples and oranges as she’d lead you to believe. Just the possibility is, as Shiffrin put it, crazy.

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