Teen sensation Mikaela Shiffrin watches U.S. skiing star Lindsey Vonn with admiration.
“There’s a reason that she’s the best skier in the world,” Shiffrin says. “She’s got a record of really hard work. She is strong and she is mentally stable, and it’s awesome to watch her because I really see a clear view of that’s kind of where I want to be.”
Shiffrin, who is still a teenager studying high school English and history during her international trips as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, might be on a path toward achieving similar successes. She is the only U.S. women’s skier with a World Cup medal this season and hopes to earn more hardware at this weekend’s Audi FIS World Cup slalom and giant slalom races at the Nature Valley Aspen (Colo.) Winternational, the only women’s World Cup stop in the U.S.
The 17-year-old is a two-time World Cup medalist and the rising star on a U.S. women’s team that is already full of established stars.
Vonn, whose status for the Aspen races may not be known until Saturday because of a recent stomach illness, is a four-time World Cup overall champion who has been dominant in downhill, super G and super combined since 2008. She is a three-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist. Her U.S.-record 53 World Cup wins include a U.S.-record 12 wins last season.
“She goes about training the way that I want to,” Shiffrin said. “When I ski my best, I try to be focused the way she is, the way she seems to be. That’s amazing.”
Vonn and Shiffrin are just two members of a U.S. team that has become dominant in international skiing. Julia Mancuso is a three-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist. No other American woman skier has won three Olympic medals. Vonn and Mancuso swept the top two places in the downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Resi Stiegler, who is racing slalom in Aspen for the first time since tearing her ACL at the World Cup finals in March, is a 2006 Olympian and earned silver at a World Cup slalom race in Ofterschwang, Germany last season. Julia Ford is a two-time national champion and 2012 NorAm overall and downhill champion.
Stacey Cook, a two-time Olympian who will not race this weekend in Aspen, says this is the best national team she has seen in her 10 years as a member of the national squad.
“We all push each other, we all cheer each other,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of positive energy.
“We have our tiffs, too. We get in fights. But it’s usually over in a few minutes and you move on. With most girls’ teams, stuff like that lasts. On this team, it just doesn’t last. It’s so positive. Everyone supports each other, but at the same time wants to be better than the person next to them. That’s a really healthy team, I think."
Spectators in Aspen will be able to see that competitive taste although there is a question of whether Vonn will race. Following a week-long stomach illness that hospitalized her, Vonn did not get back on the slopes for training until last week. She had not yet made a decision whether to race in Aspen, or resume her World Cup schedule in early December in Switzerland.
Mancuso, Shiffrin and Ford are all scheduled to compete in Saturday’s slalom and Sunday’s giant slalom. Megan McJames and Abby Ghent will also compete in the giant slalom. Stiegler, Hailey Duke and Paula Moltzan will compete in the slalom.
Mancuso, who finished second in the 2011-12 World Cup super G standings and fourth overall, has lofty goals this year. The season includes the world championships to be held in February in Austria.
“This season I’m really trying to crack into the top three overall,” Mancuso said. “I was fifth, then fourth. This year I’m really hoping to get more podiums and more World Cup points and really fight for that overall title.
“It’s really tough because Lindsey Vonn is an incredible competitor. My secondary goal would be to win one of the discipline titles.”
The races in Aspen come at a time when world rankings begin to come into play for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
“This season is really important just to kind of get the rankings back to where you want to be,” Mancuso said. “A lot of it has to do with start positions in our racing and in the World Cup, so you want to stay racing the best because then you have the best starting numbers [in Sochi].”
Shiffrin, a native of Vail, Colo., who says she remembers first watching the Games on television when she was 5 years old, hopes to continue the momentum she established with a bronze-medal finish in the slalom in Levi, Finland, two weeks ago.
“I’m excited by the podium [finish],” she said, “but I’m also trying to just almost forget about it and keep focusing on the task at hand. Every day is its own day and I have to make the best of every opportunity I can to ski because that’s how I’m going to have more success in races and eventually how I’m going to get to the Olympics.”
Racing against Shiffrin in slalom all year long, and supporting her, will be Stiegler.
“It’s good to have a teammate like Mikaela who can compete at the highest level, be as fast as you or faster,” Stiegler said. “It definitely inspires you. You just always kind of know where you stand. If you’re both doing really well, you’re excited, and pushing and motivating each other. If one of you is not having the greatest day, you still push and motivate each other.”