KILLINGTON, Vt. — On the eve of the Killington World Cup, Mikaela Shiffrin was doubting herself. Her giant slalom in the past couple of days was iffy, she said.
But not on race day. In front of 18,000 fans — one of the biggest crowds ever to watch women’s ski racing — Shiffrin found her rhythm and her legs. She nailed her second run of giant slalom and finished in second place, 0.67 seconds behind winner Viktoria Rebensburg, the 2010 Olympic gold and 2014 bronze medalist from Germany. It was Rebensburg’s second straight world cup giant slalom win after she won in Soelden, Austria, in late October.
Manuela Moelgg from Italy rounded out the podium in third, 1.49 seconds behind Shiffrin.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction after Soelden,” said Shiffrin, who finished fifth in the Soelden giant slalom. “I felt a lot more confident in my skiing today, so I’m excited to keep that momentum going. It was a sweet race.”
It was Shiffrin’s first giant slalom podium this season and 10th giant slalom podium in world cup racing. The defending overall world cup champion, Shiffrin is again in the lead for that, but a scant five points ahead of Rebensburg.
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To get on the podium today, Shiffrin had to dig herself out of a hole of self doubt. In a press conference the night before the race, she confessed that her equipment setup had been bothering her, and she was worried about not skiing her best in front of a huge crowd of East Coast fans. As she talked, she seemed to give herself a pep talk in front of the reporters.
“Sometimes, it’s about being able to put everything aside and remember that I’ve been doing this for more than a week, I’ve been doing this my entire life,” she said. “So somewhere in there is a really good skier, and I just have to let her come out.”
As the sun kissed the top of Killington’s Superstar trail on Saturday morning, Shiffrin’s “really good skier” came out on the flats between the start and finish headwalls.
“The top, I lost a little bit of time,” she said. “I felt like I sort of was trying to find a rhythm. Then once I found it, I was really excited about that skiing, and I actually made that adjustment in the middle of the course, so to be able to do that, to be thinking freely enough to make an adjustment like that while I'm racing, is a really good thing.”
In her first run, Shiffrin crossed the line in second place, 0.26 seconds behind Rebensburg, who is back to 100 percent after a series of knee injuries.
In the second heat, Shiffrin had her pedal to the floor the entire run. She put almost a minute on Moelgg behind her but couldn’t catch the German Olympic champion.
So what helped unlock Shiffrin’s “good skier”?
First, she changed her boot setup, and that gave her better feel on the rock-hard manmade snow on Superstar — snow made in the past three weeks from 15 million gallons of water, then injected with more water and rain. The new boots gave her more confidence in her skiing.
But a huge piece was her mental outlook — a battle she is realizing that she must fight in each race. Before the race, a fan sent her a direct message on Instagram. The message read, “We’re not here to watch you win. We’re here to support you. We’re just here to watch ski racing. So I hope you don’t feel pressure from us.”
Shiffrin read the message and it made her feel “so much better.”
“To the fans out there who are writing direct messages, I do read them and thank you,” Shiffrin said with sincerity. “Just having the realization that it’s not about what I do or what I don’t do, but just sharing ski racing with everybody here is incredible.”
To get her head into the right place, she also had to go to a “dark place,” she said. The normally social, affable skier blocked out everyone — her friends and the thousands of fans screaming for her — with her headphones and listened to the same Eminem song over and over. The song was full of four-letter words, she confessed with a laugh, and that made her a little uncomfortable.
In the end, it all worked. Shiffrin crossed the finish line after her second run visibly relieved and happy, even as dark clouds and rain had moved in.
“It was really exciting to come to the finish and think, ‘Oh I made some good turns,’” she said. “That was really nice.”
Shiffrin will do it all again tomorrow in the Killington World Cup slalom — her best event. She has 31 world cup wins on her resume, all but four in slalom. But the reigning Olympic slalom champion and three-time world champion does not feel like she has a target on her back. She finished second at the first slalom of the season in Levi, Finland, earlier in November.
“Today was definitely a better performance, but I still feel like I’m chasing, which is actually my favorite place to be,” Shiffrin said with a laugh, “because I feel less like I have to perform and more like I’m doing it for myself.
“And I’m just trying to see how far I can go. That’s what I feel right now, but that can change on a daily basis. I’m just trying to chase the fastest time that I can get.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.