American Mikaela Shiffrin makes history as most successful female World Cup skier

American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is making history as she now holds more World Cup wins than any female alpine skier. Shiffrin was a teenage prodigy when she burst on the scene more than a decade ago, now she's a two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion. Christine Brennan of USA Today joined William Brangham to look at Shiffrin's career and impact.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Geoff Bennett:

    American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is making history. She now holds more World Cup wins than any female alpine skier. She broke that record today after winning the giant slalom in Italy.

    William Brangham looks at her career and impact.

  • William Brangham:

    A teenage prodigy who first burst on the scene more than a decade ago, Mikaela Shiffrin is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion.

    But, for many, their last memories of her came during the Beijing Olympics, where she failed to medal and sometimes even finish her events. But then, today, she notched her seventh World Cup win in her last 11 races with yet another blazing run down the mountain.

    That win earns Shiffrin the crown with 83 World Cup titles, the most for any woman, she just passed Lindsey Vonn, and ranks her second amongst all skiers.

    I'm joined again by Christine Brennan, sportswriter and columnist for USA Today.

    Christine, so good to see you in person. Welcome back to the table.

  • Christine Brennan, USA Today:

    Thank you, William. It's great to be here. Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    For those people who last focused on this incredible skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, during the Beijing Olympics, when she really struggled, can you remind us just overall of her remarkable achievements?

  • Christine Brennan:

    You alluded to it, how she burst on to the scene as a teenager, winning national titles and World Cups quicker than anyone that we'd ever seen, and incredible staying power in a sport where there's often injury, obviously.

    It's on edge. As you're watching, your heart is up in your throat as you're watching anyone tried to ski. And, time and time again, she has been able to win World Cup races, win, as you mentioned two Olympic gold medals, an Olympic silver medal.

    But then came Beijing. And this was going to be that crowning achievement, potentially winning five medals, who knew how many gold, instead, none, absolutely none, as she skied off the course or had disappointment after disappointment.

    And the way she met that, the way she talked about it, the class and the dignity, she described the honesty of how difficult it was, I think endeared her to people. But we also had to know there was more to come, because she was still incredibly young, 27. She's going to be 28 in March. And so here's the next chapter.

    And it's this season, and then all the way, as she says, going to the 2026 Winter Olympics. So it's not just about the Olympics, even though that is what we, as mere mortals, focus on.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Christine Brennan:

    There's so much more to a skier's career.

  • William Brangham:

    You touched on this about the adversity and how she handled that.

    There have been a lot of elite athletes that have been very public about their personal struggles with adversity, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles, Michael Phelps.

    How did Shiffrin deal with this? Because she had a lot of setbacks leading up to Beijing.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Oh, without a doubt.

    She had COVID. She was in isolation for 10 days, missing a key part of her training. Her dad, who — of course, her dad and her mom are both skiers, got her into the sport, decided how to train her, said, don't worry about winning little ribbons and races. You're going to stay on the mountain and be a kid and we're going to learn this way.

    Her dad suddenly passed away after an accident, a fall in 2020. She was devastated, of course. And then, of course, Beijing itself, just the bad — the poor performance after poor performance.

    What she did was, she was incredibly honest, as honest as anyone I have seen. Most NFL players, whatever, they might sign their helmet, they want to walk out, they want to talk for a quick second. She would do interview after interview, complete class act. I'm sure many people saw one or two of those.

  • William Brangham:

    Just confronted this head on.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Absolutely.

    She talked about how devastated she was, that she never thought she'd get over any of this. And yet she would be back tomorrow for the next race. And I think that honesty, that humility, that human side of the greatest women's skier ever and soon to become the greatest skater of all time, male or female, I think that that, again, had people saying, wait a minute, this is someone that you can cheer for not just on the mountain, but as a human being as well.

  • William Brangham:

    I saw her mom actually credit the Beijing failures, in a way, for helping sort of light the fire under her that got her to where she is now.

    So she is now the top female skier, but she is, remind us, very close to being the top skier overall. What's the next goal?

  • Christine Brennan:

    She is at 83 World Cup wins; 86 is the best of any human being.

    And that is Ingemar Stenmark from Sweden, now 66 years old, but, in the '70s and '80s, he was it. And I certainly remember him. And to think that, 86, that's only three more, and she could do that in the next few days. She is a technical skier. The slalom, giant slalom, William, are much more her forte than the downhill or the speed events, even though she's won downhills in the past.

    She's got one more giant slalom, which is what she won earlier today. And then she's got two slalom races in the next three or four days. So she could get to 86 by the end of the weekend, and then the rest of the season to pass him. And, if she does, then it will be one of those conversations that I think we'd like to have in this country about the boys vs. the girls, men vs. women, who's the best?

    We had this with Serena Williams just a few months ago when she was retiring in September at the U.S. Open. And I think we're going to have this again. And I think it's going to be easy to say it's a slam dunk. The best skier ever, once Mikaela Shiffrin does this, will be Mikaela Shiffrin.

  • William Brangham:

    That's so great.

    I saw Ingemar Stenmark say he thinks she could win 100 of these, which would be fantastic.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Oh, yes. Oh, she's not done yet. So, the number will be very interesting to see where she gets.

    But we will see a lot more of her, and I will bet an Olympic performance in 2026 that will be different from what we saw in 2022.

  • William Brangham:

    Christine Brennan, always so good to see you. Thank you.

  • Christine Brennan:

    William, thank you.

Listen to this Segment