Mikaela Shiffrin charges to second in season opener | VailDaily.com

Mikaela Shiffrin charges to second in season opener

Brian Pinelli
Special to the Daily

SOELDEN, Austria — Mikaela Shiffrin continued her success on the Rettenbach Glacier course in Soelden, Austria, finishing second in a giant slalom on Saturday. The Eagle-Vail resident extended her streak to three consecutive podiums at the season-opening race.

Lara Gut, of Switzerland, began defense of her overall World Cup title with a vengeance, setting a blistering pace in the morning run of 1.42 seconds faster than Shiffrin. Gut, 25, showed poise in her second run, and despite a small miscue on the steep face, won the race by a substantial 1.44 seconds ahead of Shiffrin.

"It's a big relief to walk away from today with a podium," Shiffrin said after the race. "It's always good to win, but I'm starting off on the right foot. Anything less than a podium would be disappointing, but I'm happy with where I'm at."

"My form is good — I've improved a lot with my GS, but I don't think anyone has stood still," Shiffrin said, noting that she had productive training with the Austrians and Italians over recent weeks in Europe.

For Shiffrin, it her 31st career World Cup podium and sixth in giant slalom. The 21-year-old was making her 80th career start on Saturday, meaning that she has found the podium in a staggering 38.75 percent of her races.

Shiffrin finished second in Soelden last season behind Italian Federica Brignone and tied for victory with Anna Fenninger, of Austria, two years ago.

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"I put a lot of importance in this race and I really think it's important to start off with the speed going as fast as I can," Shiffrin said. "I definitely had the speed with me today, but I didn't find the best in me.

Shiffrin gave props to Gut, who won her 19th career World Cup race, including the Soelden opener for a second time following 2013.

"She has her skiing so dialed in that she doesn't even worry about going off course," Shiffrin said of her Swiss competitor.

Shiffrin gave credit to the U.S. Ski Team coaching staff — her tech coach Mike Day, assistant Jeff Lackie and U.S. women's new head coach Paul Kristofic.

"For sure, my coaches gave me the best preparation possible with amazing training in New Zealand and Chile," Shiffrin said.

Levi up next

Sixty-six female racers took to the start in Soelden, launching the 50th anniversary International Ski Federation World Cup season. Fan clubs and mobs of over-served Austrian fans lined the Soelden finish area, cheering vociferously on a gorgeous, sunny day in the Tyrolian Alps.

Shiffrin's fan club, predominantly made up of Europeans from approximately 10 countries, was about 30 strong. They cheered loudly and proudly for the Colorado ski racer.

"We founded this fan club four years ago and we travel here every year," said Nils Wamsler, 26, a German native. "Mikaela amazed us when she started racing World Cup so young. That's why we chose Mikaela Shiffrin and because she is a super nice person and totally grounded."

Shiffrin held a standing room only press conference two days prior to the opening race at Hotel Bergland in Soelden.

While Shiffrin admitted that giant slalom has been her priority so far this season, the slalom ace said she will quickly transition back into her bread and butter discipline. The 2014 Olympic champion and two-time world champion is seeking a fourth consecutive slalom globe this season.

"I'm looking forward to the next couple of weeks to focus on slalom before going to Levi," she said referring to the season opening slalom in Finland on Nov. 12.

Shiffrin boasts 19 career World Cup slalom victories, fifth best among female racers, and currently is within one win of Janica Kostelic and two of Erika Hess.

Eyes on overall Title

The Eagle-Vail racer, who was sidelined by a right knee injury for most of December and all of January last season, touched upon some of her plans for 2016-'17 season.

For the first time since 1991, World Cup races will be held in New England. Shiffrin and her fellow competitors will race a GS and slalom at Killington, Vermont, Nov. 26-27.

"My family is all from the East Coast so they're going to come and hopefully my 95-year-old grandmother will be able to make it also," Shiffrin said.

Shiffrin also advised that she plans on racing two downhills and a super-G in Lake Louise, Canada, the following weekend.

For Shiffrin and her U.S. teammates, nine races in total will be contested on home snow.

It's back to the U.S. in March to conclude the season with a pair of tech events at the 1960 Olympic resort of Squaw Valley, before the tour shifts to Aspen Snowmass for World Cup Finals, March 15-19.

Shiffrin, who finished tied for 10th in the overall last season despite the knee injury, is entering her sixth season on tour with more confidence than ever before. She said she believes that she has a legitimate shot at winning the coveted overall World Cup title.

"It's the first season that I think it's really possible — we'll have to sort of wait until the middle of the season to really get a grasp of where I stand and if I'm racing well in slalom and GS, have some good results in speed and I'm a contender, then that's when I say the overall has to be front of me."

"That's the big ticket, that's the big globe, it's a huge dream of mine, but I also want to keep things in perspective," Shiffrin said.

As she chases more victories and titles, Shiffrin briefly reflected about good times during her younger days on the slopes

"I've learned to appreciate it a lot more these past couple of years, mainly when I think back about 10 years ago, or when I was 5 years old ripping around Vail Mountain," Shiffrin said. "I just think about how small I was."

"Some parts of me now feel like the same small little girl, and some parts feel like it's a dream or something," she continued. "It's nice to think back because those days were so surreal and I had so much fun with my parents, my brother and my friends. I'm really lucky."