The lady remains a champ; Shiffrin wins
BEAVER CREEK — The lady does have a flair for the dramatic.
Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin needed every bit of the last portion of the 2,099-foot women’s slalom course to pull out gold on Saturday at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships at Beaver Creek.
Shiffrin had a 0.40-second first-run lead over Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, but a good run by the current World Cup leader preceding Shiffrin essentially erased that margin. Shiffrin was 4-hundredths of a second behind Hansdotter at the first time interval and 3-hundredths back heading into The Abyss and the face of Redtail. Yet Shiffrin somehow found time in the final stretch, pulling away from Hansdotter by 34-hundredths with the Czech Republic’s Sarka Strachova earning bronze.
“Why did you ski slow at the start,” Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mom, joked at the post-race news conference.
“I was so worried that I was going to screw it up,” Mikaela said. “I was telling myself I wasn’t feeling pressure, that I’m going to go out and make my best turns and it’s going to be fine even if I don’t get the gold. Then I’m in the starting gate going, ‘God, I want this.’ It’s a mental battle with myself for how much to push. Hopefully, at some point in my career, I can charge top to bottom no matter what.”
Her career to date is pretty darn good. Shiffrin, 19 and turning 20 next month, defended her world title in the slalom, having won her first Championships gold back in Schladming, Austria, in 2013. It’s also her third “major” medal with her Olympic gold in the discipline in Sochi, Russia, last year. Since World Cup statistics are independent of the Olympics and Worlds, she also has 12 World Cup wins and two World Cup slalom titles to her name.
Shiffrin appeared unemotional at the finish line with her time in green lights and a capacity crowd going bananas.
“I put a ton of energy out there, especially on that last third of the course, making sure every turn was spot on,” Shiffrin said. “I had no energy in the finish. It’s always a little awkward. I feel like all the best racers had an epic finish celebration. Ted (Ligety) throws his ski. Lindsey (Vonn) falls on the ground. (Tina) Maze puts her finger in the air. How about if I do something epic? Then I get to the finish, and I’m like, ‘Hi. I’m kind of a dork.’ I don’t want to show that side of myself. I’m not that great at showing my emotions. Guess I have to work on that.”
Not a dork
Shiffrin, most assuredly, is not a dork, or everyone who roots for American ski racing would like to be a dork like her, however that works. Despite Ligety’s win in men’s giant slalom on Friday, the U.S. Ski Team’s first gold medal of these Championships, Shiffrin faced a ton of pressure to produce on Saturday.
As the wait increased for the second run of the slalom, the finish stadium’s big screen showed Shiffrin at the top of the hill, looking like she was napping. In fact, she had gotten her regular daily nap earlier between runs.
“Yes, in fact, I am half a bear,” Shiffrin joked. “It’s so hot today. If it’s too cold or too hot, it effects my energy. I was saving my energy for the second run.”
Hence she lay in the snow with the appearance of cool. Yet she was feeling the pressure.
“One of my motivating factors is not to be an example like used in Choke or Mindset,” said Shiffrin, referring to psychology books she’s read. “They always use examples of athletes that choked. It’s like, maybe, they didn’t choke. It’s a goal to not be used as an example. I’ve been lucky so far with how well all these big events are going. Pressure is what you make it. If you work hard enough, prepare hard enough, you can still perform. Ted proved it yesterday, I proved it today. Frida proves it every single race.”
And Hansdotter put the heat on Shiffrin with what would be the fastest second run — 48.35 seconds. As uneasy as the home crowd seemed as Shiffrin fell slightly behind through the two timing intervals, making up the time was as simple as finding her rhythm and letting her skis run on Redtail.
“I can admit how much I wanted this race,” Shiffrin said. “Yeah, that second run, I know how much Frida can attack those courses. Between the first and second run, I thought, ‘I have to just hold my own against Frida.’ Then (Slovakia’s Veronika Velez) Zuzulova had an incredible run, everybody, I felt comfortable enough with my margin. I knew it was enough except for Sarka and Frida. I found my rhythm and just kept going and it just got better and better.”
Hansdotter, who took bronze in the last Worlds, had won two slaloms on the World Cup circuit this season, emerging as Shiffrin’s chief competitor. Down by 4-tenths after the first run, Hansdotter let it all hang out on her second run.
“I feel super happy on my skiing,” Hansdotter said. “It’s been a great season for me. To achieve this medal is unbelievable. Mikaela was skiing super good today. It was hard to beat her, but I’m happy with the silver medal.”
Hansdotter said she briefly entertained thoughts of gold after Shiffrin’s first two splits, but then saw how the American was skiing the bottom of the course, and knew that it was over.
Strachova won her fourth career medal at Worlds with a combined time that was 77-hundredths behind Shiffrin. All of those medals came before July 2012, when Strachova had surgery for a brain tumor. She returned to competition five months later, but understandably her comeback was just beginning.
“Yeah, it’s hard to describe this feeling because this is an amazing day,” Strachova said. “(A) bronze medal for me, it is almost a gold, I worked so hard to get back on top. Standing on the podium next to Mikaela and Frida, I can’t believe it.”
Slovakia’s Zuzulova was fourth, followed by Austria’s Kathrin Zettel.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, email@example.com and @cfreud.