To Ingemar Stenmark, all this fuss over Mikaela Shiffrin as she approaches his record of 86 World Cup skiing victories is beside the point.
Because the 66-year-old Swede believes the American is already on another level.
“She’s much better than I was. You cannot compare,” Stenmark said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She has everything. She has good physical strength, she has a good technique, strong head. I think it’s the combination of everything makes her so good. And I’m also impressed that she can ski good both in slalom and in super-G and downhill also.
“I could never have been so good in all disciplines.”
While all 86 of Stenmark’s wins in the 1970s and 80s came in the technical disciplines of slalom (40) and giant slalom (46), Shiffrin’s 85 wins have come, yes, predominantly in slalom (52) giant slalom (19) or parallel (5), but also in super-G (5), downhill (3) and combined (1).
One of Shiffrin’s three medals at the world championships this month came in super-G with a silver.
Stenmark knows the numbers well, because he enjoys following Shiffrin’s races.
“I watch most of them,” he said via phone last week from his home just outside Stockholm. “To become such a good skier you have to love skiing, and she has good touch with the snow, good feeling. She can adapt to all kind of different snow conditions.”
After winning three medals in her four races at worlds, Shiffrin returns to action this weekend in Kvitfjell, Norway, where she plans to compete in a super-G, a downhill and then another super-G on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Then Shiffrin has a giant slalom and a slalom in Are, Sweden, on March 10-11.
Might Stenmark attend the races in Are if there’s still a chance for Shiffrin to match or break his record?
“No, I’m not going. I’m sorry for that. But I will, of course, watch on TV,” Stenmark said, explaining that he doesn’t want to devote too much attention to Shiffrin when there are also top-notch Swedish skiers competing, like Olympic giant slalom champion Sara Hector.
“That’s why it would be a little bit strange for me to go to Are to celebrate Shiffrin when we have the Swedish girls also,” Stenmark said. “If it would have been another place, it would be easier.”
Shiffrin won her first World Cup race in Are in December 2012, claimed two gold medals at the Swedish resort at the 2019 worlds and has six victories there in all.
“I heard she likes Sweden, but maybe she likes Norway more now, because she has a Norwegian boyfriend,” Stenmark said, referring to Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the circuit’s leading downhill skier, who Shiffrin has had a relationship with for several years.
While Stenmark hasn’t attended a race since Lindsey Vonn invited him to her career finale in Are in 2019, he’s drawn to Shiffrin’s methodical approach to skiing and — as someone known for his reservedness — appreciates her introverted personality.
“I don’t know her personally, but she seems to be a very (nice) person,” Stenmark said.
Shiffrin shows just as much reverence for Stenmark as he does for her.
“I would say the name means more than the number,” the 27-year-old Shiffrin said of Stenmark. “He’s an absolute legend in skiing. And no matter what I achieve, this kind of term, ‘the greatest of all time’ or the numbers — all that for me, it’s something that’s debatable.
“The thing for me about sports is that it gives people a reason to be inspired by whoever they choose to be inspired (by),” Shiffrin added. “So whatever I do, it’s a little bit of a moot point. And that’s how I feel about Ingemar. His name is in history as a legend of the sport that people will remember forever.”
Stenmark, who won his final race in February 1989 in Aspen, Colorado, has a long history with American skiers, having been rivals of the Mahre brothers — Phil and Steve — during his racing days. Then Vonn approached his record before injuries cut her career short and left her with 82 wins.
“It’s not a very big sport in the U.S. if you compare it to American football and baseball and the other (sports). But there are lots of good skiers,” Stenmark said.
Stenmark and Shiffrin competed in vastly different eras, with many more races — plus more disciplines — available to Shiffrin now.
There have also been huge advancements in skiing equipment since Stenmark stopped racing.
“It’s all completely different, but I liked the way it was when I was racing. The only thing I miss is the carving skis,” he said, referring to the newer, hour-glass shaped skis that make turning less challenging. “I think skiing nowadays is easier than when we were racing, but winning is maybe harder now, because there are so many (top) skiers. If you make one small mistake, it’s hard to win.”
While Shiffrin has had her fair share of mistakes — see her performance at last year’s Beijing Olympics when she didn’t finish three of her five individual races and didn’t win a medal despite enormous expectations — she still wins a whopping 35% of her races.
“And I think she can win more than 100,” Stenmark said. “It depends on how many years she continues. But for sure 100.”