Mikaela Shiffrin boosts downhill confidence ahead of Pyeongchang | VailDaily.com

Mikaela Shiffrin boosts downhill confidence ahead of Pyeongchang

Brian Pinelli
Special to the Daily

CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy — About 20 minutes after the sun rose, illuminating the Italian Dolomite peaks, Mikaela Shiffrin was all business, strategizing with her coach, visualizing and intently focusing on deciphering the ideal line on the twisting Olympia delle Tofane downhill track.

Considering the stunning beauty of the soaring, craggy, inexpressibly colored peaks that frame the venerable racecourse, for most it would be near impossible to stay focused on any task. Not for Shiffrin and especially not during an important course inspection on an unfamiliar slope.

The 22-year-old Eagle-Vail native's efforts were rewarded two hours later. Shiffrin sped to her third career downhill podium on Friday, Jan. 19, finishing third in the first of two World Cup downhills at the glamorous 1956 Italian Olympic resort. Lindsey Vonn was second, 0.37 seconds faster than Shiffrin as Italian Sofia Goggia claimed victory on home snow.

"I have huge confidence in downhill, but it is about the specific tracks where I have to learn them," Shiffrin said in the Cortina finish area. "When you are at high speed and the visibility isn't great and you hit a bump and all these things that can happen when you are skiing that fast. Those are the things where experience is a huge advantage.

Shiffrin cited her keys to higher speeds and success in ski racing's most daring discipline.

"You have to be really relaxed, but at the same time, super intuitive and thinking constantly," Shiffrin said. "It's a balance between thinking, but also letting your instincts take over and that's a difficult balance for me to strike. Every singe turn I'm learning so much."

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Getting up to speed

With the Pyeongchang, South Korea, Winter Olympics just three weeks away, Shiffrin emphasized the significance of the Cortina World Cup races.

"I came into this weekend, knowing that it is important for me to have the confidence skiing these downhills to have more certainty going into South Korea," she said. "This is sort of a dry run for the Olympics and today is a really, really great step in that direction."

"It takes years to learn this course and Mikaela has mastered it — it's just another feather in her cap," said Tiger Shaw, the CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. "I'm stunned, amazed and very, very happy."

Analyzing Vonn's tactics and line on video has also been paramount to Shiffrin's rapid learning curve at the Italian venue.

"She has the most expertise and experience skiing this course fast which is huge," Shiffrin said of Vonn, an 11-time winner in Cortina. "It would be crazy not to study that."

"Technically, she is an amazing skier and I think she'll be a more consistent threat in speed once she gets more mileage," Vonn said of Shiffrin.

Shiffrin — in the midst of a torrid World Cup winning steak in which she has won eight of her last 10 starts, finishing third in the two other races — made gains in her quest to become the consummate all-around skier and complete downhill racer.

"When I was younger I always wanted to be the best skier in the world and to be able to win in all the different events," said Shiffrin, who has now 41 career World Cup victories, in all disciplines except super-G. "To win in speed you have to get enough experience and start to get a comfort level with it."

Shiffrin is 3-for-3 reaching the podium in downhill events this season. She turned heads when she captured her first career downhill win in Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December, one day after a third-place result.

Scouting South Korea

Shiffrin insists that the game plan is to start in all five disciplines at next month's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Unlike previous Games, the technical and speed races for women have been flip-flopped — the order now being giant slalom, slalom, super-G, downhill and alpine combined. It should bode well for Shiffrin.

"When I go there I will be focusing on the slalom and GS, but then after that there are a bunch of downhill training runs and for the combined as well," Shiffrin said. "There will be plenty of time to figure out the track for me to see how fast I can actually learn it and then execute.

"The downhill in South Korea was on my radar actually after Lake Louise. I skied great in Lake Louise, it was nothing special, but it was important to see that it wasn't a fluke. I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know how South Korea will go, but this is a really good sign."

Never ceasing to amaze, the Eagle-Vail ski racer stands second in the World Cup downhill standings after Friday's race, trailing Goggia by 49 points. Vonn is currently eighth.

Shiffrin, Vonn and their Italian challengers will have a second crack at the Olympia delle Tofane piste as the ladies race the second of two downhills on Saturday, Jan. 20, followed by a super-G on Sunday, Jan. 21.

Mancuso bids an emotional farewell

It was also a bittersweet day for the U.S. Ski Team as 18-year veteran Julia Mancuso raced her final World Cup race. The four-time Olympian and four-time Olympic medalist made the decision to call it a career on Thursday, Jan. 18, still battling nagging discomfort following hip surgeries, the most recent in 2015.

The free-spirited Mancuso bid farewell to friends on tour super-hero style, donning a Wonder Woman costume and cape as she descended the Cortina piste one final time, a course that she triumphed on in 2007.

Mancuso will be most remembered as a competitor who elevated her game at big-time events. Her four Olympic and five FIS Aline World Ski Championship medals is most all-time by a U.S. female ski racer.

"I hope I inspired others as an underdog," Mancuso said, holding back a tear in the Cortina finish area after her final race. "I don't think I was ever looked at like a favorite and sometimes that brought gold medals."

Shiffrin congratulated her elder teammate on an "amazing career" and posted an Instagram photo of the two of them bungy-jumping together.

"I've skied with her the past couple of years and I'll always remember watching her in the Olympics and how much inspiration and excitement she brought to the sport," Shiffrin said of Mancuso. "It's sad to see her go and for sure I wish her the best."

"It's been a pretty emotional afternoon — I'm trying to keep it together," Vonn said. "We've been skiing together since we were 9 years old and I'm crying more than she is today. We pushed each other and both reached higher levels in the sport because of it."