Shiffrin of U.S. finishes second in giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo.

December 1, 2013

Mikaela Shiffrin stood in the starting gate Sunday afternoon, her home mountain stretching out below her, all but beckoning. She had slept Saturday night in her own bed, just five miles from where she stood. She had passed the time by working out a mash-up of two songs on the piano in her room, a bizarre combination of “Battle Scars” by Lupe Fiasco and “The Scientist” by Coldplay. She had killed all the time she could. It was time to race.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, can’t you just let me go already?’ ” she said later. “. . . I was just standing in the start like, ‘Okay, calm down. Save it for the run.’

“And I finally was able to go — and I just couldn’t get going fast enough. It felt exactly as I imagined it would feel.”

And because of that, she smiled. In mid-mountain, mid-race, at maybe 50 mph.

Shiffrin announced Sunday she could be a threat to win multiple medals at the upcoming Sochi Olympics because she placed second in a World Cup giant slalom race here — her best result in a discipline that is faster and longer than her specialty, slalom. Over two runs down the Birds of Prey course, she was beaten only by Sweden’s Jessica Lindell-Vikarby and only then by nine hundredths of a second.

And in doing so, she helped save what could easily have been a lost weekend for the U.S. ski team, which over three days on their only domestic stop of the World Cup season posted only one finish better than 19th — Shiffrin’s beyond-her-years performance in giant slalom.

“We needed that,” said Bill Marolt, president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

With defending Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn nursing a knee injury — she did not race this weekend but will travel to Lake Louise, Alberta, in hopes of returning to competition Friday — Shiffrin is the most likely American to inject energy into the women’s team. At 18, she already has won five World Cup slalom races, including the season-opener this year. She won both the season-long title in slalom a year ago and a gold medal at the world championships. Whatever happened Sunday, she is a favorite for gold in Sochi in that event.

But her first podium finish in giant slalom opens up more possibilities. In between runs Sunday — she was second to Lindell-Vikarby by 0.44 seconds at the midway point — she said her expectations for giant slalom, in which her previous best finish had been sixth, weren’t terribly results-oriented.

“My only expectation is to ski as well as I can,” she said.

Now it’s clear her best skiing can put her on the podium. “It’s hard to beat her,” said third-place finisher Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein.

“In ‘GS’ and slalom, I’m always hoping for a win but focused on my skiing,” Shiffrin said. “I’m never really focused on the results because that can get in my head.

“I have a pretty good balance of being in the starting gate and knowing exactly what I need to think about in my skiing to get down the hill fast. It’s nice to be on the podium and have that gauge of where I stand with everybody else.”

Where she stands now is squarely at the center of the American team, a top hope for Sochi. Her performance here helped mask what could have been a miserable weekend. Julia Mancuso, who won Olympic gold in giant slalom in 2006, barely qualified for the second run Sunday. Only the top 30 advance, and she finished 27th. She then skied off-course in her second run and didn’t finish. Two other Americans didn’t qualify for the second run. So the heavy lifting was left to Shiffrin.

“She’s been a huge addition to the team and the program,” Marolt said. “She has the tenacity. She has that mental edge to her. She just does. When you’ve got Mikaela and you get Lindsey back on track and ultimately Julia will get back on track, you’ll get a powerful women’s team.”

Shiffrin, though, is the only member of that team currently performing. This week played out perfectly, with training mixed in with Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend in nearby Eagle-Vail, where Shiffrin did much of her growing up. She slept on her own pillow. She played her own piano.

“It was marvelous,” said Jeff Shiffrin, her father. “I hate to say it, but some parts of it are becoming routine.”

It didn’t necessarily feel that way Sunday. When Shiffrin completed her second run, the scoreboard at the finish line showed her combined time of 2 minutes 18.01 seconds put her in the lead. Her mother, Eileen, cupped her gloved hands and screamed at her daughter, who jumped on her skis in celebration.

Lindell-Vikarby, the only remaining racer, heard that clamor from the top of the mountain and responded. When she crossed the finish line, Eileen Shiffrin initially bent at the knees and bowed her head before looking up and applauding.

“I was so happy today because it wasn’t really nerves that was getting me down the hill,” Mikaela Shiffrin said. “I wanted to race. I couldn’t wait to get out of the starting gate.”

She said it just as she had raced: with a smile.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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