“And now the oldest competitor is in the start gates,” announcer Doug Lewis said, his voice booming across the 15,000 or so spectators who had come to Killington for the Xfinity World Cup giant slalom race today.
No woman likes to be reminded of her age and for 34-year-old Italian Manuela Moelgg, the words, if she heard them, seemed to goose her as she flashed past the start wand. She had the fastest time of the course in the first split on her first run and held that speed to finish third, 0.57 seconds behind leader Viktoria Rebensburg and 0.31 behind second place Mikaela Shiffrin.
On the second run, the order was reversed for the starts but the results stayed the same. Moelgg set a fast pace, taking the lead to cheers from the crowds. Then Shiffrin came blasting down the course, gaining on every split. But it wasn’t fast enough: Rebensburg, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in giant slalom, bested Shifrin’s run by 0.41, taking the overall lead. This makes it two-in-a-row for Rebensburg, who won the season opener World Cup GS race in Soelden, Austria a few weeks ago.
Though the three women are all veterans of the World Cup circuit the age gap – ranging from Shiffrin, who at 22 is one of the most successful young racers ever, to Rebensburg, 28, to Moelgg, 34 – showed, as Lewis said that “age doesn’t matter.”
Last June, Elisabeth Goergl retired at age 36 after being the oldest woman to win a World Cup, having won a downhill in 2014, just a month before her 33rd birthday. Shiffrin was the second youngest woman to have won a World Cup, winning her first at age 17. And she’s still building.
While she’s dominated slalom in the last year, Shiffrin has been strength training and working on improving her performance in giant slalom. She’s been consistent and finished in the top 10 in six of her last World Cup GS races and has won three, two in Semmering and one in Squaw Valley.
At the post-race press conference, when asked if she felt like she has a target on her back, Shiffrin responded, “I still feel like I’m chasing. And that’s where I like to be.” With a fifth in the first World Cup GS of the season in Soelden, Austria and a second in slalom at the Levi, Finland World Cup, she’s showing the consistency that has made her a champion. “I felt a lot more confident in my skiing today,” Shiffrin said. “It was a sweet race and really fun to ski and to come to the finish and say ‘I made some good turns,’ that was really nice.”
Shiffrin has been working with a sports psychologist and is learning to tune out the noise. Before today’s race, she says, “I kept this Eminem song with lots of swear words in a constant loop on my earphones and tuned everything else out.” That, combined with new ski boots seemed to help. As did one other thing: “I got a direct message on Instagram from a fan – not someone I know – and she said, “Were not here to watch you win, just to be supportive” and that made me feel so much better. Having the realization that it’s not about what I do or don’t do made it easier for me to just ski. Right now, a huge part of what I need to work on is mental and today was a step in the right direction.”
And that mental control may be something that comes with age. If so, Shiffrin is going to be a force to contend with for some time.
Photo: Shiffrin, on her first run. Photo by Angelo Lynn