Vail teen tries Mikaela Shiffrin-like trajectory
February 14, 2017
ST. MORITZ, Switzerland — Cleo Braun is one step closer to following in Mikaela Shiffrin's footsteps. The 15-year-old Vail native was the American representative selected to compete in the 2017 Longines Future Ski Champions giant slalom race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Monday, competing on the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships course following the men's alpine combined race.
Competing against a top U16 racer from each of the 13 countries that host the alpine ski World Cup, Braun ended up sixth, finishing behind winner Erika Pykalainen, of Finland.
"It's 100 percent the hardest slope I've ever raced on," Braun said after the race, which posed an extra challenge as dark shadows fell across the course and snow conditions changed rapidly in the late afternoon. "And with the whole World Champs scene, it's a big deal. There were definitely some nerves, but the whole experience has been incredible."
The fourth of its kind, Longines initiated the Future Ski Champions race with a mission of ensuring the longevity of alpine skiing. The Swiss company, which has for decades also served as the precise time keeper of the World Cup and World Championships races, conducts the Future Ski Champions race every winter, alternating between genders each year. Shiffrin, a former Future Champion and now an ambassador for Longines, led the bib draw ceremony on Sunday evening before the race on the same stage used for the world championship medals ceremonies.
"It's really exciting that Longines has put so much commitment toward our sport," Shiffrin said at the bib draw. "It's a great initiative to have these competitions and allow these young racers to ski against each other."
The winner of the Future Champions race earned $20,000 for her country's ski federation as well as a medal, a crystal globe and a Longines watch.
Although she didn't walk away with the victory, Braun believes the invitation to the race was a major building block toward her project of becoming the next rising star from Vail.
"It's not about winning at this age, but making it in the future. If you want to run and make it to something like this, you're where you want to be," Braun said.
The teenager finds major inspiration in being reared in a place that, with its steady stream of standout skiers — Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Sarah Schleper — has established a notoriety of being home to champions.
"It's been cool to look up to them my whole life," says Braun, who was literally placed on skis as a baby before she could walk and got her start skiing in the Buddy Werner League before moving onto Ski & Snowboard Club Vail at age 12. "Being around them has really made me realize that they're just normal people who worked hard at something they love. Anyone can do it. I can get there if I try. They're no different than anyone else. They worked hard and made it."
Every teenager racing in Monday's race wanted her picture taken with Shiffrin and the Finn who won cited the Vail native as her No. 1 idol.
"From any other country my (hero) is Mikaela Shiffrin," Pykalainen said after her victory. "I had seen her before but this was the first time to talk to her. It was amazing."
Braun has noted milestones in her own young career that parallel with Shiffrin's. In addition to being selected as the solitary American racer at the Longines competition, both women faced their first European field at the Topolino Games, in which Shiffrin found her way to victory as a young racer and in which Braun missed the podium by mere hundredths of a second last season.
"I missed the podium by a couple hundredths and it helped me know – along with this race — that I could compete against the Europeans," Braun said. "And being here is incredible. I've been around the World Cup and the World Championships scene living in Vail but I've never been this close. I've never actually skied on a course. It's cool to see what the future might have in store."
What exactly does Braun envision for the future? Her path is clearer to her now than it's ever been.
"Where do I see myself? All the way up at the top … where Mikaela is. That's my goal. I'm sticking with it."
Shiffrin, who is currently leading the World Cup overall standings, is gunning for a medal in Thursday's World Championship giant slalom race as well as fighting to defend her gold in Saturday's slalom. As the champion battles on the big stage this week in St. Moritz, Braun forges along her ascending trajectory, competing in the Seven Nations Cup in Hinterreit, Austria.