VAIL — Mikaela Shiffrin said in seeing all the young fans welcome her back Friday, she can’t help but wonder which of them she’ll be competing with one day.
The 19-year-old Eagle-Vail native was welcomed back to Vail by hundreds of cheering fans in a gathering that both celebrated her gold medal at the 2014 Olympics and previewed the slalom champion’s 2015 season, which will culminate with the World Championships here in the Vail Valley in February.
“I just try to do the best I can whenever I’m in the starting gate,” Shiffrin told the crowd.
Standing next to Shiffrin atop the stage at Solaris was 12-year-old Meriel Upton, a Ski & Snowboard Club Vail athlete and member of the 2015 Dream It Team of aspiring ski racers.
“She’s my favorite athlete,” Upton said.
In a press conference before the event Friday, Shiffrin described herself as a mix of Upton’s generation and the generation of young athletes like herself who made it to the Olympics.
“I feel like I connect with those younger athletes a lot easier than somebody who’s 27 years old and had a ton of success, but they’re maybe getting ready to think about retiring, moving on and have already done something for the sport,” Shiffrin said. “... I might be racing with some of those athletes in the crowd in a few years, if they work hard enough and they believe in themselves.”
Ski & Snowboard Club Vail athlete Kate Kirwood, 13, said Shiffrin is her favorite athlete because she’s “fun.”
“She’s like one of our friends rather than someone big and famous,” Kirwood said.
Shiffrin was escorted to the celebration in a town of Vail firetruck driven by local firefighter Ricky Knudsen.
In addition to Shiffrin, the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships mascots — Pete the Mountain Lion and Earl the Raccoon — were on board. Fans were given “Vail loves Mikaela” stickers and Shiffrin head-on-a-popsicle-stick commemorative items.
Once on stage, Shiffrin was presented with a lime green cruiser bike named “Goldie” from the Vail Valley Foundation and the town of Vail, a knit pillow from Chris Romer on behalf of the Eagle-Vail homeowners association and a lifetime Vail Resorts ski pass from Vail Mountain Chief Operating Officer Chirs Jarnot, who issued it to Shiffrin in the form of a 4-foot tall Epic Pass.
“Anyone who’s born and raised here and gets a gold medal in the Olympics gets a lifetime pass,” Jarnot said with enthusiasm as the crowd exploded in cheer.
Shiffrin said the cruiser bike was a great gift because her brother is “in love” with cruiser bikes.
“Or at least he was for about a week last summer,” she said. “He tried to take one of our old bikes apart and paint it gold and silver ... Anyway, the bike is still totally taken apart in our garage.”
Shiffrin spent this week training on the World Championships super-G course at Beaver Creek.
“To be able to come home and right away get on Raptor, it’s kind of inspiring for the next season,” she said.