LEVI, Finland — Mikaela Shiffrin sent an unmistakable message leading to the Sochi Olympics.
The 18-year-old American easily won the World Cup slalom opener Saturday, beating reigning Olympic champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany by more than a second.
“I’m really happy with how the day went, and I’m also really excited because it looks like there are some pretty fast girls in the back of the pack,” Shiffrin said. “I’m excited for the Olympics for sure but there are a couple of races between now and then, so hopefully I can just keep this going.”
Shiffrin, the slalom world champion, led by half a second after the first run and raced seamlessly at the top of the hill in the second to extend her advantage. She overcame a mistake near the end to finish in a combined time of 1 minute, 55.07 seconds.
Hoefl-Riesch, tied for third place after the first run, skied a nearly flawless second run but still finished runner-up, 1.06 seconds behind. Tina Maze of Slovenia, last year’s overall World Cup champion who struggled in the giant slalom opener in Soelden last month, was third, 1.61 back.
Shiffrin emerged as a major star in the discipline last season by winning both the World Cup slalom title and the world championship race, making her one of the major medal favorites for Sochi. Her display on Saturday only heightened expectations, although she thinks there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“Every day there is something you can do better,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to go back and study my skiing from today and study all the other girls to see who is doing what well and try to get better.”
Another 18-year-old, Christina Ager of Austria, finished fourth in her first career World Cup start. Ager started with bib No. 53 but was fifth after the first run — in part because of favorable wind — and then missed the podium by just 0.07 seconds.
Hoefl-Riesch has won three World Cup slaloms in Levi and made the podium for the seventh time.
“It was a great day for me. I had a good feeling in training already,” she said. “It’s always really special for me here because of my first win many years ago and because of my many good results here.”
Maze said she was happy to get back to skiing fast after the disappointing result in Soelden, where she struggled with the high expectations after her dominance last season.
“I got a lot of pressure in Soelden race, it was the start of the season so it was not easy to handle all of this pressure so I felt really empty,” Maze said. “But at the end I realized it’s nothing important. The only thing important is to ski fast.”
Marlies Schild of Austria, the slalom specialist who injured her knee in December 2012, returned for the first time since recovering fully. She was already well behind Shiffrin in the first round by the time she missed a gate and skied out.
Still, Schild was just happy to finally be able to ski in good health.
“Of course, I wanted to race a second run. But, yeah, it’s not so bad at all,” Schild said. “I’m in a good shape. I have no pain anymore and that’s very important for me and I just have to wait, I think, to get a good feeling.”
Four-time former overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn skipped the Levi meet and will make her debut in the speed events in Beaver Creek, Colo., after recovering from a right knee injury in a crash in February.
“She is back and she’s strong,” Shiffrin said. “I’m impressed with how strong she is. ... I don’t think anybody should count her out, that’s for sure.”
For Shiffrin, the Olympic gold medal is clearly her main goal for this season. She received a different sort of prize Saturday. For the first time, organizers presented the winner with a live reindeer from the local Lapland region.
Shiffrin named the 6-month-old reindeer Rudolf, although she won’t be allowed to take him home.
“I scared him off a bit when I jumped off the podium to meet him, but I think we will be getting along,” Shiffrin said. “I hope that when he gets older and trained I can go for a ride on a sledge with him.”