Mikaela Shiffrin conquers another event
The smiling teenager navigated her way easily through the finish line, skis held high, charming the photographers every so often with a smirk. She was just 19, but carried herself with the comfort of a veteran. It was the tenth time she had been through the routine as a World Cup winner. But today was special. Mikaela Shiffrin was a victor in giant slalom for the first time ever.
Everyone knew this day would come. But winning in Soelden isn’t easy. Shiffrin shrugged off the pressure of press conferences, partner appearances and the whole aura that surrounds the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup opener in Soelden — not to mention the entire nation of Austria that was jammed into the Glacier Stadium and glued to ORF across the country.
"It’s very helpful to know that I can win GS," she said after the race. "I’ve thought it for so long and believed in myself. But today was the first day where between runs I was like, ‘Yeah, I really think I can do this and can get that top step.’ I really believed it."
Winning was a challenge. In fact, Shiffrin had to share the top spot with defending overall champion Anna Fenninger. Starting first, Shiffrin powered into the top spot. A few skiers later, Fenninger came down the pitch of the Rettenbach Glacier charging, taking the mid-course lead. But on the perilous bottom flats, the light went red and Fenninger dropped .09 back. It was clear that Shiffrin knew the riddle of the Rettenbach — keep your speed off the steep to carry you through the never-ending flats to the finish line.
In the second run, Fenninger turned it on, slicing her way down the steeps and skiing flawlessly to the finish — putting down a challenging gauntlet for America’s newest super star. Ever-focused and on-task, Shiffrin clicked her poles and pushed out of the starting gate. She wasn’t as smooth as Fenninger, dropping back on the steeps. She narrowed the gap near the bottom but how could she possibly make up time in the few gates to the finish? Somehow she did, with the scoreboard showing a 0:00 tie.
"It feels really good to share first place with Ana, and also be on the podium with Eva, you know they finished the season so strong last season. I couldn’t really have a better podium," she said. "Fenninger was completely on top in GS last year. She was so fast and so fluid and so much fun to watch."
Saturday’s win also came on the 100-day-out mark to the opening of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in her hometown of Vail/Beaver Creek. While outwardly she talked of hoping to make the team, everyone knows that she could be the story of the Championships this February.
But there’s a big schedule ahead, continuing again in just three weeks when she begins defense of her past two season titles in slalom with the World Cup heading north to Levi, Finland. Then it’s on to Aspen for the next GS, where she finished second a year ago.
Amidst it all, Mikaela Shiffrin is having fun. Ski racing has always been her life and she relishes every moment. She embraces her rivals — heck, many of them were her heroes growing up. She’s a student of the sport. She embodies all that’s great about Olympic athletes — the kid next door you just want to support to succeed. The one who captivates you with her athleticism but endears you with her wholesomeness.
Congrats, Mikaela. There will be many more.
Park City’s Tom Kelly is noted authority on Olympic sport and a veteran of nine Olympics, serving as spokesperson for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Behind the Gold, now in its third season, will take you inside the story of America’s Olympic skiers and snowboarders.
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