KILLINGTON, Vt. — From the moment Mikaela Shiffrin left the gate in the Killington World Cup slalom today, she wanted to make a statement.
“Not to everybody else but just to myself,” she said.
But that statement was loud and clear both to the 16,000 fans who packed the stands at Killington and to her closest rival, Petra Vlhova, a tall Slovakian skier who had beaten her in the two previous world cup slaloms.
“I pulled things back together with my slalom skiing, brought a little more discipline back to it, found a really balanced stance,” Shiffrin said of her training in the past two weeks. “I was able to put that skiing out there, which was very satisfying to do.”
“But it’s going to be a really cool rivalry this year,” she added.
Both Shiffrin and Vlhova are 22 years old. It was Shiffin’s 32nd win and Vlhova’s third.
On a course that was as icy as a hockey rink tipped on end, Vlhova made a mistake in her first run, and Shiffrin led her rival by 1.45 seconds after the first run, then added another 0.19 of a second on run two. In a race where a third of the field in the second run didn’t finish, Shiffrin won by a huge 1.64-second margin.
Bernadette Schild from Austria finished third and explained where Shiffrin is able to put time on the rest of the field.
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“[Mikaela] is very stable, she knows exactly where to push and where not to, and she takes sections where you can let your skis go, and they just do it, while I’m still like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go out,’ or I just don’t have the self-confidence yet,” Schild said.
With her innate balance on a tough course, Shiffrin was able to reassert her dominance in her best skiing discipline. Vlhova first beat her in slalom at world cup finals last March in Aspen, then carried that momentum to the first slalom this season in Levi, Finland.
Before the Levi race in early November, Shiffrin and Vlhova trained together for two sessions. It was intense, said the American, who was admittedly stunned at Vlhova’s speed.
“I was like, ‘Oh great, she’s going to be pushing me harder and harder all year long,’” said Shiffrin, who also admitted that she dislikes training with anyone who is as good as she is. “I was almost like a deer in the headlights. I hadn’t really felt any other person who was really pushing me that hard.”
What did Vlhova learn from Shiffrin? That the American makes very few mistakes.
In the Killington slalom, Shiffrin also made a statement about her nerves. Unlike last year, when she was “almost incapacitated” by nerves skiing in front of thousands of ardent ski-racing fans and her family, including her grandmother, she attacked both first and second run this year. And her Nana, now 96 years old, was here to watch again.
“When I ski really good slalom, it almost feels like I’m flying, and I had that feeling both runs today, which was a really good feeling to have because sometimes it’s like you’re hacking it up and it just feels so bad and you get to the finish and are thankful that you’re still alive,” she said. “That wasn’t the feeling that I had today.”
She has been working with her team — her mom and her coaches, as well as a sports psychologist — to pull herself out of the dark place that uncontrollable nerves have sent her on race day. So far this year, she has not vomited before races. And she is working on “blowing away” the dark cloud.
This year, rather than stiffening up under the pressure of the home crowd — many of whom watched grow up skiing at nearby Storrs Hill in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and at Burke Mountain Academy in northern Vermont — Shiffrin seemed to use the roaring crowd as fuel.
“You have to feel the crowd in order to be able to connect with the crowd,” she said, “and I could really do that here, which is something that I don’t feel very often.”
Shiffrin connected with one young fan in particular. At the end of the press conference, she presented her podium flowers and teddy bear to a shy 9-year-old named Gabriella Kolev, a young ski racer from Stamford, Connecticut, who has juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
Shiffrin said she saw some of herself in Gabriella — both her shyness and her strong belief in herself.
“Days like today when I feel like I’m on top of the world, you’re the kind of person who brings me back to earth, and that’s a really good quality to have, so thank you,” said Shiffrin.
And on a day when Shiffrin was making statements, even her attire had something to say. When not in ski boots, she wore gold hiking boots that she purchased on a whim in France last year.
Perhaps a premonition of what’s to come in PyeongChang, Shiffrin looked at the gold boots on her feet and coyly said, “I just like the color, I like shiny things.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.