When Karin Harjo joined the U.S. ski team as an assistant coach in 2015, she was surrounded by female athletes representing dozens of countries during races and training. But she was the only woman on the mountain who was coaching with a national team.
Eight years later, Harjo will soon assume one of the most conspicuous and consequential coaching jobs in Alpine skiing: as Mikaela Shiffrin’s head coach.
Shiffrin, whose 87th World Cup victory last week broke Ingemar Stenmark’s 34-year record for most World Cup wins, emphasized that the appointment of Harjo, whom she called “one of the most capable coaches I’ve ever worked with,” had another purpose.
“It’s about wanting to put a bigger spotlight on female coaches,” Shiffrin said in a telephone interview from Europe on Sunday afternoon. “I’ve accomplished a lot, but maybe in this stage of my career I can give other female ski coaches more of a visual of something to strive for.
“Everybody talks about legacy or asks what I want to accomplish in the final years of my career. This coaching decision was something that got my wheels turning. This feels important.”
While there are hundreds of men’s coaches affiliated with the Alpine World Cup, Harjo, who is currently the head coach of the Canadian women’s Alpine team, said she is one of only eight women coaching on ski racing’s most elite circuit.
In a telephone interview last week, Harjo, who worked with Shiffrin from 2015 to 2021 as an American coach for both the technical and speed events, talked of being honored to assist Shiffrin again. But she also recognized the progress her hiring represented.
“You can’t take away the impact that it has for women who might say, ‘Well, if she can do it, then I can,’” Harjo said. “It’s a really powerful thing; it says that this is a viable career path.”
Harjo will replace Shiffrin’s longtime coach, Mike Day. The Shiffrin-Day working relationship ended last month after seven years when Shiffrin informed Day that she planned to take her staff in a new direction at the end of the season.
“Until recently, I couldn’t imagine ski racing if Mike was not there with me,” Shiffrin, who turned 28 on Monday and has won 17 Olympic and world championship medals, said. “He’s been there for the most important moments of my career and my life. I wasn’t looking for a different coach.”
Shiffrin said she learned last month that Harjo was interested in rejoining the U.S. ski team. That made her re-examine her plans.
“With Karin, I felt like this was something I cannot pass up,” she said.
Shiffrin’s team includes her mother, Eileen, a former ski racer who has traveled with her daughter and acted as one of her coaches since Mikaela joined the World Cup in 2011. It also includes another woman, Mikaela Shiffrin’s physical therapist, Regan Dewhirst.
At the youth and junior levels of racing, female coaches are relatively common, if still a distinct minority. Few have landed jobs at the sport’s elite level.
Harjo, however, has been a trailblazer. When she went to work with the Canadian women’s team last year she became just the second woman named head coach of a national team. In 2016, she became the first woman to set up a women’s World Cup slalom racecourse, which ended a decades-long procession of women’s technical courses being set only by men. Since 2016, two more women have been course-setters on the World Cup.
There have also been recent initiatives meant to promote and celebrate women in snow sports, including one spearheaded by U.S. Ski and Snowboard. The International Olympic Committee has also funded a four-year program aimed at increasing the number of elite female coaches.
“I’ve known Karin a long time, and I’m comfortable with her,” Shiffrin said. “She’s relentless when it comes to learning about the sport and is especially good at giving feedback on the hill — technically and tactically. And she’s brilliant with technology and video analysis.”
This week, Shiffrin will have three chances to add to her pre-eminent World Cup victory total at the circuit’s men’s and women’s season finale in Andorra. Harjo will begin her tenure as Shiffrin’s head coach next month during an extended period of ski testing in Norway.
While Harjo is about to ascend to a new prominence in the ski racing world, about 20 years ago she was a student at the University of Washington who seemed destined to be a doctor or medical researcher. Her Norwegian parents taught her to ski as a young child, and as a college student she worked weekends as a ski instructor.
Nearing graduation, Harjo was offered a job at a university laboratory. She surprised her family when she told them that she was going to take a full-time job as a ski instructor instead.
“It was the classic, ‘I’m just taking a year off and then I’ll come back,’” said Harjo, who added that it was an immensely unpopular decision among those close to her.
“But there’s not one specific way to start any career. And here I am 23 years after graduating from university, and I’m working at my passion with an incredible opportunity that you only dream about.”