Coach Mike Day credits luck more than talent for being paired with three of the top U.S. ski racers of all time.
Of course, those athletes might disagree. And so, too, would the ski academy and U.S. Ski Team that recruited him.
The former Auburn resident, whose love for the sport blossomed in the backyard of his Boulder Drive home and on the slopes of nearby Lost Valley, is starting his third year as personal coach to Mikaela Shiffrin, whose meteoric success as ski racing’s “phenom” continues to make headlines around the world
The 23-year-old American just posted her 44th World Cup win in Finland a week ago in the season-opening women’s slalom, an event she’s dominated since her foray into World Cup competition at age 15.
Since then, she has won two overall World Cup titles, five slalom World Cup titles, three world titles in slalom and three Olympic medals, two of them gold.
Day spends roughly 250 days of each year with Shiffrin, largely on the road, on and off the slopes, working with her one-on-one in an effort to help keep the world-class skier at the top of her game and atop the podium.
Both will be in Killington, Vermont, this weekend for the second slalom and giant slalom of this World Cup season.
It’s something of a homecoming for both Day and Shiffrin; he calls Vermont home these days (along with his wife and two children), and Shiffrin graduated from a ski academy in Vermont.
Day said Shiffrin makes coaching her easy.
“What separates her, in my opinion, is work ethic on the hill and off the hill,” he said. “I think that she outworks everyone that I know at this point, currently, and that I’ve worked with previously.” he said
In the spring of 2016, Day was tapped to be Shiffrin’s personal coach.
A mutual friend had asked whether he would be interested in working with her. Day had left the U.S. Ski Team three years earlier take a job as head boys’ coach at Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Fayston, Vermont.
“It all came together from there after extensive communication and conversation and talking through how things work with her,” he said.
Once everyone agreed it was a good fit, the U.S. Ski Team hired Day as Shiffrin’s head coach. A strength and conditioning coach also works directly with her on and off the hill, Day said.
Shiffin’s mother is ever-present and plays a major role in her daughter’s personal and professional life, Day said. His hope was to complement her involvement and build on her success.
“That’s something we discussed a lot even before I was hired,” he said. “We laid everything out there and were very clear on how things operated and ultimately, for me, her mother has had the biggest influence on her skiing career, period. She made her from scratch, both as a human and as an athlete. So if you try to come in and disrupt that balance, it’s not going to work.”
Day said he intended to “enhance the really successful situation and professional environment.” In the past two seasons, Shiffrin has “been historically successful, so clearly something is working quite well,” he said.
Shiffrin had been battling a case of nerves and fatigue that are blamed for a disappointing showing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she finished fourth in slalom, an event she had been heavily favored to win. But, Day said, “She’s improving for sure” in her efforts to manage the jitters.
“I think everybody on our team, from her mother to the coaches to the physiotherapists play multiple roles and I think that’s part of creating a safe and consistent environment for her to perform in,” he said.
Fatigue is another factor all ski racers must battle, especially with an alpine World Cup program expanded now to six disciplines. Shiffrin has a secret weapon that helps her cope, Day said.
“Sleep is a multifaceted performance enhancer and recovery enhancer,” he said. “I think that she uses both napping and overnight sleep as a recovery tool, not only recovery for her body, but recovery for her mind.”
He said Shiffrin “can pull off a nap in almost any environment, and I think that is really a form of meditation for her and just being able to escape and get into a good place to focus on performing her best.”
Even with her remarkable ability to recharge, Day said Shiffrin can’t compete in every race on the World Cup circuit. Her schedule this season, like last year, is expected to include all technical races in slalom and giant slalom. She’ll ski in all other disciplines, but in limited number, as her schedule allows, he said.
Speed events carry a higher risk of injury, Day noted.
“Her pure speed in her downhill and Super-G is high, but her experience is low,” he said. “So, we’ve been working hard to bring up her experience in volume to sort of meet how fast she is. Ultimately, she only has so much time to train for all disciplines, and it’s our job as coaches and managers of her to make appropriate decisions as to how she competes and how she trains.
Shiffrin’s coaching team is “constantly juggling to try to make sure she has the volume that she needs to be confident but also is fresh and not fatigued,” Day said.
The only recent change to Shffrin’s team was last spring’s loss of her serviceman of six years, responsible for maintaining her equipment. But, if results are any indication, that hasn’t appeared to be a detriment. She finished third in Solden, Austria’s giant slalom, and won the first slalom of the season a week ago in Levi, Finland.
Day said before that race that Shiffrin had been skiing well and with confidence, but wasn’t sure how competitive her speed was.
Now she knows.
Miller and Ligety
Shiffrin isn’t the only elite ski racer Day has been asked to coach.
Following his graduation in 1989 from Carrabassett Valley Academy after five years there, Day went to college in Vermont, where he skied competitively before embarking on a career in finance.
But, staring at a computer screen in an office all day “wasn’t going to work for me,” he said.
He didn’t have to suffer for long. After six months of finance, he got a call from CVA’s headmaster, asking whether he’d like to return to the school.
Without hesitation, “I threw my stuff in my car and drove up there and started my coaching career,” he said.
He was tasked as coach of a group of boys that included Bode Miller.
“I was fortunate to meet him and start working with him at a very young age,” Day said. “And then, also, lucky enough to be coaching on the World Cup level with my first national team when he was winning his first World Cup races (in early 2000s) as well as his first Olympic medals.”
Day said: “We’ve had a long friendship and relationship through the years.”
Early on, he saw in Miller raw speed, great athleticism and a “very unique approach to ski racing,” Day said.
He said that observation likely was more a reflection of his lack of experience as a coach than insight.
“Truthfully, I didn’t know enough about coaching or really know enough about the sport to make that kind of judgment that early in my career,” he said.
When Miller applied his unorthodox technique to shape skis, “all of a sudden, everything started working,” Day said.
Miller was the extreme opposite of Shiffrin, whose technical and tactical skills were finely honed by the time Day started working with her, he said.
Miller went on to win 33 World Cup races, stand on the podium 79 times, and capture overall World Cup title twice. He earned six medals in five Winter Olympics.
After leaving CVA, Day moved to Park City, Utah, where he ended up coaching a teenager named Ted Ligety for three years, who would go on to win two Olympic gold medals in four Winter Olympics, win 25 World Cup races, stand on the podium 52 times and take home the World Cup giant slalom globe five times.
As with Miller, Day would return to later coach Ligety on the U.S. Ski Team.
Despite the personal sacrifice his career takes from time with his family, Day reflects on his time spent as a coach with gratitude and pride. And he never loses sight of his roots and where he got his start; his mother still lives in Auburn, he said.
“One thing that I appreciate about my career is being a Mainer and having grown up with a love of ski racing and the sport of skiing right there in a small town and at a small ski area,” he said.
“Lost Valley was sort of a springboard for me and it’s rare in these days that a little ski area like that has influenced so many quality coaches and quality racers as well,” including Julie Parisien, who grew up skiing at Lost Valley, then went on to become a U.S. Ski Team member, a three-time Olympian and winner of three World Cup gold medals.
“I’m proud to be a Mainer and to have started my career in ski racing right there in Maine,” he said.
Mikaela Shiffrin, bottom left, and Mike Day, to her left, pose for photos with Shiffrin’s team members after she won the women’s World Cup parallel slalom in Courchevel, France, last December. (AP Photo/Marco Tacca)