Skiing’s next big thing

Like a typical teenager, Mikaela Shiffrin goes to the movies with friends, watches episodes of “Glee” and jams to all sorts of tunes in the privacy of her bedroom.

Of course, she’s hardly your typical teen.

The 18-year-old may very well be the face of the Sochi Olympics, especially with Lindsey Vonn sitting this one out because of a right knee injury.

Shiffrin, the ski prodigy from Eagle-Vail, Colo., showed her promise by winning a World Cup slalom title last season. She’s possibly the next big thing in skiing – once she adds more speed events to her calendar.

And next month, she will be introduced to a much wider audience on an even bigger stage.

Intimidating? Try Invigorating.

“It’s an exciting thought,” Shiffrin wrote in an email. “I can’t let myself think about it because I have enough on my mind.”

Like learning how to care for her new reindeer, Rudolf.

He was part of the prize package for winning a slalom event in Levi, Finland, two months ago. Shiffrin recently ordered a book to “brush up on my reindeer care” for when she visits him (she’s not allowed to take him home – Santa’s rules).

And while her Rudolf doesn’t fly, she does – on the slopes, anyway. She already has six career slalom wins, which is second on the all-time slalom list among American women, trailing only Tamara McKinney’s nine victories.

“She’s a phenom,” said Bill Marolt, the CEO and President of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. “She has the athletic ability, the mental tenacity to do what she’s done and will continue to do.”

Still, she’s only a teenager and her support team tries to keep everything as routine as possible.

Shiffrin’s mom, Eileen, travels all over Europe with her, preparing home-cooked meals and making sure she doesn’t get too homesick. There are really no firm rules, either, because Shiffrin is hardly your rebellious youth.

“She tends to be in bed when she should be,” her mom said. “She likes to be rested and eat well and she knows what works for her.

“We try to support her. We don’t lay down the law.”

Given her surging popularity – she won a slalom race last weekend in Bormio, Italy – the interview requests have been nonstop. Shiffrin’s manager, Kilian Albrecht, tries to keep the distractions to a minimum.

“Skiing is the focus for now,” he said. “She needs to have time to train and prepare. She’s only 18. You’ve got to make this right for her.”

Part of that involves not loading down Shiffrin with too many endorsement or sponsorship responsibilities. She has a deal with Italian pasta maker Barilla and another with Procter & Gamble, promoting Pantene hair products (“It has given my hair new life after all these years of weather beating,” she said).

Albrecht said they have turned down several other possible endorsement offers.

“It’s not about making a quick buck,” said Albrecht, a former skier who finished fourth in the slalom at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. “It needs to be a solid-path plan.”

Fans and advertisers aren’t the only ones paying close attention to Shiffrin. Her competitors are, too. Hard not to, the way she’s been skiing since making her World Cup debut in March 2011 and picking up her first podium finish in only her eighth career race.

“Mikaela has a lot of talent,” Vonn said in a recent interview, before announcing she was skipping the Sochi Games to undergo another surgery on her knee. “It’s exciting to have new blood on the team.”

Inevitably, Shiffrin draws comparisons to Vonn, which she considers “flattering.” Shiffrin definitely has a lot in common with her idol, too.

Chief among them, winning races.

“Lindsey is a great athlete, a great skier, an icon in women’s sports and a beautiful human being,” said Shiffrin, who finished up high school last June by taking online classes through Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. “So, of course, I will always be flattered to be compared to Lindsey.”

For the moment, Shiffrin remains a technical specialist. Once she hones her technique, though, the plan is to have her compete in downhill and super-G competitions.

“Maybe by next season I will be ready for some speed events,” she said. “In the meantime, I will keep training some SG and DH, which contributes to my technical progress and that gives me my speed fix for the time being.”

Away from the race hill, Shiffrin tries to be an ordinary teenager. She hangs out with friends (when she’s home, that is), loves TV shows – she also watches “NCIS” and “Friends” – and dabbles in mixing together music. Before a race in Beaver Creek, Colo., last month, Shiffrin spent time in her room combining lyrics and beats from Lupe Fiasco’s “Battle Scars” and Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” She had that tune racing through her mind when she glided to second place in the giant slalom that weekend.

These days, Shiffrin also tries to slalom her way through the pile of fan mail she’s received. Her goal is to answer every letter, but has fallen way behind.

Even more could be waiting after Sochi – and that’s a little daunting.

“Since I now know how much weight and effort goes along with being introduced to the public eye, I am not getting crazy or greedy over vying for more fans at this point since I have all I can do to accommodate the present fans,” Shiffrin said. “But I do love to promote skiing and ski racing because I think everyone should have the chance once in his life to feel what I feel when I dance down the hill on my skis.

“It’s a blast and I love to share that experience with as many people as possible.”