Teenager Mikaela Shiffrin stood in the finish area Thursday under the glare of floodlights in Are, Sweden. The aura reminded her of those nights eating Spaghetti O's and running gates under the lights at Storrs Hill and Whaleback in New Hampshire. She had just skied as perfect a slalom run as you will ever see. Now she watched as Swedish favorite Frida Hansdotter came down with another stunningly good run.
But the scoreboard flashed red. "Wait a minute," thought the 17-year-old. She stared in disbelief at her name with a number 1 next to it. Mikaela Shiffrin had just won her first Audi FIS Alpine World Cup.
It's unlikely she'll remember much of the next few minutes, like the live television microphone in her face as she spoke to more than 10 million global viewers. But what she will remember is this: She skied the best run she could. And that's all that ever matters to her.
"I was just trying to fly," she stuttered, not exactly sure what to say. Her mind gravitated to her mom and how she just wanted to hug her, and how her dad was coming over to see her in a few days. She caught glimpses of mom in the crowd and thought of the homework she would have her attend to.
Amidst it all, she finally realized that she was a World Cup winner.
At 17 years, nine months and five days, she's not the youngest U.S. skier to win a World Cup race. Kiki Cutter won at 16 and Judy Nagel at 17, a few months younger than Mikaela is now. That was over 40 years ago.
Mikaela finally caught her mom's eye in the crowd and it released some of the pent-up emotion. A few minutes later they embraced. "I just kind of realized what happened and hearing her say 'great job' and 'I love you' and 'I'm proud of you,' it was just the best thing. That was really when I started to realize that I've worked so hard for this and she's been here the whole time. My father and my whole family have been supporting me and now all of the sudden there's something there that I've worked towards and accomplished and it's wonderful."
When a ski racer wins, it's about family. Athletes don't get to the podium without mom and dad. Sure, parents write checks, but they also keep you grounded and focused. And they're the biggest in a growing legion of fans.
The Shiffrins will spend Christmas in Europe. And next week, Mikaela will slip into a red leader's bib when the Audi FIS World Cup tour heads to Semmering, Austria, outside Vienna.
As a teenaged athlete having your next level of success, you can't really say anything wrong. Sometimes it's hard to know what to say. But more often than not, you're actually prophetic - sort of an innocent honesty.
When Mikaela talks about her feelings, you just have to believe.
"Oh, gosh, what does it feel like? It feels like home," she said. "I told one of my friends this actually. In having these accomplishments - making top 30 in GS, winning a slalom tonight - it just feels like I'm where I belong and where I want to be and where I need to be. And no matter what happens off the hill, when I'm on the hill and I'm skiing like that, I feel like I'm at home. And it's hard to find that feeling when you're so far away from home for so long."
Merry Christmas, Mikaela!
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.