Q&A: Mikaela Shiffrin on Turning Her Winning Streak Into Marketing Gold

Skiing champ reflects on life as an Olympian, both on and off the slopes

'The most important thing for me to be mentally prepared for anything is to be physically prepared,' Shiffrin says. Photography: Matt Nager for Adweek; Hair, makeup and styling: Susan Wagenknecht

It’s prime cocktail hour at NBCU’s beachside cabana. The Cannes Lions festival is in full swing. Network executives are holding court, entertaining marketers and media mavens as the Mediterranean sun blazes, the rosé flows and live music wafts across the crowded wooden deck. Off to the side, quietly taking it all in is Mikaela Shiffrin, who, in a sleek red dress, could easily be confused as any one of the marketing pros, save for being the most obviously toned and fit person there. She is, after all, the current two-time reigning World Cup overall champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, most recently winning the kamikaze-like giant slalom event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Shiffrin, 23, is in town for panels and the promotion of her own brand—which could be characterized as confident, graceful and grounded. That special blend of approachability and athleticism helped land Shiffrin blue-chip sponsorship deals with the likes of Red Bull, Longines, Oakley, Visa and others.

Post-Cannes, between her unending workouts in France and tending to her nearly 600,000 fans on Instagram, Shiffrin recently paused to speak with Adweek, reflecting on life as an Olympian, both on and off the slopes.

Photography: Matt Nager for Adweek; Hair, makeup and styling: Susan Wagenknecht

Adweek: So, how was your experience at Cannes?
Mikaela Shiffrin: It was fun. What an amazing setting. I’d like to go back. I got to meet some pretty cool people—business executives, female bosses. It was a huge step for me to be there. It’s completely outside of skiing.

You’ve had a big year, switching from technical to speed racing, like the giant slalom. How did you get your head in that space?
The most important thing for me to be mentally prepared for anything is to be physically prepared. If I have really good training and I feel like I know what I’m doing, I’ve been skiing really well, I’m strong—if all of those pieces are in line, the discipline doesn’t matter. I feel like I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t really matter what comes at me. I’m going to be able to handle it.

How have you managed the process of toggling back and forth from racing to representing brands?
I’m really fairly fresh. I feel like I’ve sort of been taking a crash course through trial by error, posting on my own social media and seeing what works—but really just trying to stay true to my personality. It’s definitely been a pretty steep learning curve. It’s figuring out what pictures [fans] like to see, what comments do they like. For instance, when I post dancing videos people seem to like that, but I don’t have enough time to do it, so then I’m thinking, oh, my God, how do I get all this like trying to play to the likes and interests of my fans as well, which is a huge piece of it that when I’m skiing I’m just skiing; I’m just trying to ski fast and I’m just trying to win races. When you bring in this whole other side of it, this kind of business and marketing side, you’re trying to perform really to the likes of the people watching and that’s a different sort of feeling than I’ve ever had. I’m definitely trying to learn how to master that.

You have a ton of Instagram followers. Do you enjoy using other platforms?
I’ve actually been really enjoying Twitter lately. It’s really easy to show people a small glimpse inside my mind by simply liking a post or retweeting someone else’s post and writing a few words.

Do you fly solo on social media or does someone guide you? Tweets so easily can go sideways.
My mom, my dad and my brother are really good about just keeping track of what I do. My image has been fairly clean. I mean, I have sass for sure, I’m kind of a snarky person. I like to have fun. I have a voice, and I want to use that voice for the right things—for things that I’m interested in as long as it’s important to me and it’s doing good. I’m fine to speak out against bullying, for mental health awareness, for cancer.

Does a gold medal guarantee success?
No. Oh my gosh, no. What guarantees success is the mentality that leads you to a gold medal, I’d say. The gold medal itself will you get about 24 hours of everybody wanting you. You get a bunch of followers on your social media and you’re like, “Wow, oh, my God, if things keep going like this, it’s going to be easy-peasy.” But you can’t just get on the couch and expect that the world is at your feet because it’s really, to be honest, about a week into the Olympics people stop caring.

Shiffrin most recently won the giant slalom event at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Getty Images

How do you maintain interest, especially with potential sponsors?
You have to work at it. You have to show sponsors and potential sponsors that what they saw and what they might have liked is true and is continuous; it’s not just a one time every four years sort of a thing. My best, biggest brand endorsements have come in non-Olympic years, and that’s because I think brands need to see something more than just an athlete who can perform once every four years, because most brands can’t really do much with that.

Pretty much every industry has gone through a #MeToo moment.  Do you see challenges that need to be addressed in your sport?
I’m almost certain that there are #MeToo stories in ski racing. It’s very much a male-dominated sport in terms of staffing. But the great thing about ski racing is that in terms of athletes’ pay, it’s really equal. It’s probably the most gender-equal sport or business out there. For instance, this year compared with the top male athlete, [Austrian World Cup alpine ski racer] Marcel Hirscher, I actually made more than him in prize winnings. Some of that depends on which races you win because not every race has equal prize money for first place, second place, third place and beyond. But for me that was like a really, really cool thing to see just in gross income, prize money standings that I was just right equivalent with Marcel—slightly above, actually.


What’s the best advice you ever received as an athlete and by who?
I remember I was 9 years old and we were driving somewhere. I was in the backseat; my dad and mom were in the front and I don’t know what led to this conversation, but they said the best thing you can do for your attitude is to smile. We have this kind of mantra that attitude is everything and they said smiling releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel a little bit happier. Especially if you feel really sad and down in the dumps, force yourself to smile even if it’s fake and it’s just going to make you feel slightly happier, and that’s going to get you like over the hump or in the right direction to feel better about whatever it is and to actually make the change you need to in order to be happy again.

What’s next for you?
I’m in a pretty strict conditioning block. I have been since the middle of May pretty much, and that’s going to keep going until the end of July. And I have some more media stuff going on [Shiffrin is nominated for a Kids’ Choice Award, Teen Choice Award and two Espys], and then I’m going to go back on snow.

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@lgranatstein lisa.granatstein@adweek.com Lisa Granatstein is the editor, svp, programming at Adweek.