Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin has roots in Berkshires
Mikaela Shiffrin can trace her international success in skiing to a piece of open land on Prospect Street that the neighborhood kids in this town called Killer Hill.
Shiffrin, 18, is the defending World Cup champion in the slalom event and in many circles the favorite to win a gold medal on at 7 a.m. EST Friday for the U.S. team at the ongoing Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. A medal in the giant slalom at 2:30 a.m. EST Tuesday is also a possibility, but the slalom has been Shiffrin's bread-and-butter event.
The Colorado native is coached by her best friend and travel partner, Eileen Condron, who also happens to be Shiffrin's mother. Condron, who graduated from Mount Greylock High School in 1977, grew up in Lanesborough with sisters Anne Marie and Carolyn, and her brother Patrick.
The quartet learned to ski on an open field that was across the street from the family home.
"It was a pasture more than a hill," said Patrick, who goes by the nickname P.J. "To be honest. I don't know how it got that name. I mean nothing bad ever happened there. We just called it Killer Hill, and my dad loved it. It's where we went to learn how to ski."
Joe Condron and his wife, Pauline -- she's Polly to family and friends -- raised their children in this rural Berkshire County town and in younger days were both ski and outdoor enthusiasts. Joe, who passed away a handful of years ago, worked at GE Ordnance. Polly, a spry 92, still lives in the family house where thanks to a family-provided HD television and some state-of-the-art computer gimmickry is able to watch Mikaela's World Cup races live.
It means getting up on weekends at about 4 a.m., but sleeping through the overseas races is not really an option. Not for a very proud grandmother.
Said Pauline, "I had the lights in the house on one weekend morning and a neighbor knocked on the door and came in. It's not that he was worried about me -- he knew what I was doing. He said to me ‘How's your granddaughter doing?' "
It's a family affair all the way around, said P.J., who also lives in Lanesborough, and who watches the telecasts with his mom. "Both my sisters are in New York, one in Albany and one in Rochester. But we all get up and watch at the same time while doing a conference call."
"Watching those races live so early in the morning is exciting," said Polly, who says she goes back to bed when the runs down the mountain are completed.
"She's a darling and an amazing young girl," Polly added. "She's just grown up to be such a nice girl."
This is all true. It's been said about Mikaela that she has all the personality qualities of a true Olympic champion.
P.J. said his niece is "grounded" despite having been the youngest U.S. women's skier to ever medal on the World Cup circuit, where she was a regular on the podium in slalom and giant slalom last year at the age of 17.
Mikaela isn't on the cusp of the big time. She is the big time. As mentioned, she is the defending World Cup champion in slalom and a medal threat in the giant slalom. She is this year's current leader in points on the World Cup slalom circuit, which will finish after the Olympics. She was a guest on the David Letterman show a year ago when she nailed down the World Cup title.
Mikaela was the cover photo on one of the four regional Sports Illustrated Olympic preview isses. A gold medal and a Wheaties box may well be in her future. And she won't turn 19 until March.
In the meantime, Eileen and Mikaela spend their weeks driving from one World Cup venue to another. The drives can last sometimes up to eight hours or more. Europe, eastern Europe, Russia and the Scandinavian countries make for an interesting itinerary. Wrong turns, P.J. said with a laugh, are not encouraged.
"Truly," she added. "They are parent, coach, student, athlete and best friends."
Joe Condron attended Clarkson Universitiy, and soon met Polly, who was born in Montreal but moved to the nearby and small U.S. border town of Malone at an early age. Joe, an avid outdoorsman who skied, put his faith in GE and moved his family to the Berkshires.
Eileen, meanwhile, skied on the alpine team at Mount Greylock. She became a champion racer in the masters division and would often ski at Brodie Mountain while pregnant with Mikaela. She worked for Jim Kelly at Brodie in the daycare room. In turn, her young children were given free passes to ski on the small children's hill.
Eileen attended college in Boston, where she met her future husband, Jeff Shiffrin, an anesthesiologist, who holds down the family fort in Vail, Colo., while his wife and dautghter traverse across another continent. Jeff was a top-notch downhill ski racer while at Dartmouth College.
Taylor, who is Mikaela's older brother, is a superb downhill racer for the University of Denver team. Jeff and Eileen lived for a while in Hanover, N.H., before moving to Colorado and starting their family.
"They had been in Boston," P.J. said, "but I think they wanted to go somewhere where the snow was at their front door."
Education and skiing were the top two items on the Shiffrin list. Mikaela and Taylor each attended Burke Mountain Ski Academy on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, where each excelled athletically and academically.
Eileen, said P.J., actually took some of the courses so that she could better tutor Mikaela when needed during their World Cup travels. P.J. said the last course Mikaela took at Burke was German, because of the propensity of German athletes on the World Cup tour, and because that is the language that is most spoken pretty much universally among the athletes.
Polly, meanwhile, still frets a bit about her granddaughter's choice of sport and her current location. Barreling down icy mountains at speeds in excess of 70 mph and competing in the sometimes chaotic country of Russia, well, "nana" has a lot on her plate.
"I just want her to get back safe and healthy," Polly added. "I'm not all that comfortable with her being over in Russia."
Certainly not as comfortable as looking out the window and watching her own young quartet cavort and learn a life's passion on a place they called Killer Hill.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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