Nov. 27, Killington, Vt: — In the last few minutes of the Audi FIS World Cup in Killington there were six winners. As each of the top women flashed down Preston’s Pitch, the last steep pitch on the Superstar trail, the times got faster and faster. Racers were coming down a little over a minute apart, punching past more than 45 gates, passing one, on average, in less than every 1.02 seconds. At the bottom, a new leader appeared on the scoreboard every minute.
Only one 1/100th of a second separated fourth place Norwegian racer Nina Loeseth (who finished second in the GS races yesterday) from fifth place Slovak Petra Vlhova. As commentator and former Olympic racer Doug Lewis put it, “that’s 12 inches across the finish line.”” Bernadette Schild finished the second run with a time of 44:32, the fastest time of the run.
And then came the last place starter, America’s hero Mikaela Shiffrin.
Shiffrin started first on the first run and finished in first, with a time of 43:30 besting second place finisher, Veronika Velez-Zuzulova’s 43:95. That earned her the last-place start on the second run. Would she beat the others?
The crowd of more than 16,000 stood hushed for a minute as Shiffrin stepped into the starting gate. Down at the K1 base area, crowds of Burkies (young ski racers who, like Shiffrin, trained at Burke Mountain Academy) wearing American flags as face paint and clanging cowbells, started screaming “Mikaela! Mikaela.”
“In slalom, the start is pretty close to the finish. You could peek over the break of the hill. I could hear the crowd cheering and getting quiet and cheering and getting quiet and chanting ‘USA, USA, USA’,” said Shiffrin, “Or at least that’s what I hoped it was.”
Going last has its pressures. And this time, Shiffrin, who grew up in New Hampshire and went to Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, was facing a home-town crowd of friends and relatives, including her 95-year-old grandmother, Nana. [See our feature story on Shiffrin, The Woman to Watch]
“I’ve been in that [starting last] position many times before,” she said later on at the press conference. “The same thought always crosses through my head: “I’m the last one, I’m the closing act. Here we go… Hope I don’t screw it up!” and then I try to get the doubtful thoughts out of my head and just remember that no matter when I go—whether I’m last or first or in the middle—it’s still only me on the mountain. The most important thing is that I take that time and use it to my advantage. It’s the most fun I have during the day.”
And on Sunday, Shiffrin skied one of the runs she is most proud of, making up time on each section of the course to win the overall title by 0:73, with a combined time of 1:27:95. Velez-Zuzulova was second and Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener was third [results below]. Shiffrin’s lead over second place was almost equal to the 0:77 time difference between second and seventh places.
At the finish, Shiffrin took off her skis and rushed over to give her Nana a hug. As she did, tears streamed down the 21-year-old’s face. “The most proud I have ever been was to win a race in front of my Nana and she doesn’t even care whether I win or lose. In fact, she might not even remember,” Shiffrin said with a laugh at the press conference. Then added, “Thank you Nana for your unconditional love—and your pies,” referring the Thanksgiving she had spent with her East Coast relatives.
It was the 22nd World Cup win for Shiffrin and, as she admitted after the race, the pressure to win had been building. On Saturday, the day before, she had finished fifth in the giant slalom, a discipline that she has been working on. But slalom has been Shiffrin’s forte: coming into this event she had won nine straight World Cup slalom events.
“I woke up this morning and felt like.. Do you ever have days when you have a bad day? I went through moments when I thought ‘maybe I should not do this because I am so worked up and nervous and worried about the wrong things.’ It wasn’t very enjoyable until the second run on the course and the fight I put into the course got me going. I had some bobbles here and there but then I actually started making a few clean turns.”
Her first run was clean and set a pace no one could match. In between runs, she freeskied to clear her head and to get her muscles moving. “It’s hard,” she said, “It’s only 2 minutes out of the day that you have to perform but you have to figure out how to keep your energy level high all day—but still save your energy for when you really need it.”
As Shiffrin punched through the gates, legs flashing side to side like a metronome in fast forward, you could see that energy in action. The grandstands erupted as she came into sight over the knoll.
“Sometimes hearing the crowd I think, I must be doing well so maybe I can take my foot off the pedal. Other times I think, uh oh, they are trying to cheer me on to ski faster. My feeling today was just keep making faster turns, keep picking up the pace, nothing is going to be good enough except fighting as hard as you can.”
As Shiffrin crossed the line, she lunged forward to trigger the clock, then punched the air as she saw the scoreboard.
More than 1,000 young ski racers from clubs from around Vermont had come to watch and participate in the opening parade. Perhaps those screaming loudest in the crowd were a group of young girls from Burke Mountain Academy, Shiffrin’s alma mater. They waved signs and shrieked as she took off her skis. As she left the finish area, an army of school-age kids chased her.
“She’s amazing,” gushed one young Burke student. Older girls were equally star-struck. “Every time I watch Mikaela, I learn something new—how to stay quiet, how to keep my body stable,” said Laurence St. Germain, a junior at the University of Vermont who also raced in the World Cup slalom that day as a Canadian team member.
For Shiffrin, who on Friday night admitted that she was used to “being the baby” on the circuit, having younger racers look up to her is a new role. She holds the record for the youngest woman with a World Cup win, having won her first World Cup race at 15.
“That role of being an inspiration for younger girls is growing. As more people tell me that I inspire them, I start to inspire myself more as well. I’m not the most confident person and I tend to have a lot of self-doubts but I’m also generally a really happy person,” She said.
She also admitted: “Sometimes these races get to me and I feel like I have to be something special or something different and get somebody’s else’s approval or get the crowd’s approval or the media’s approval. Today, I tried to make the choice that I don’t need approval and I think that’s a message for all those young girls. More important than my skiing and what kind of model that sets for them is skiing for yourself and not doing it for anybody else.”
For Shiffrin, this may have been a breakthrough day. She was emotional and openly reflective after the race. “After I won Levi (Finland’s World Cup in mid-November) by 6/10ths of a second I had a bunch of people come up to me and say ‘What happened? What went wrong?’ and that really made me mad. And I couldn’t figure out why until I got to this race. I realized why it made me so mad was that I work my tail off and everybody does. All these girls are trying to beat me, so I would be surprised if I was still seconds ahead,” she said, referencing her record-setting 3:07 lead at the Aspen World Cup slalom last November.
“So for anyone out there watching today you don’t need other people’s approval. That’s something I’ve always seen on the East Coast: here people think ‘I don’t care,’ – ‘I don’t care what you think about me.’ And I love that. It’s a really, really perfect time to be back here racing and to get that breath of freshness and, hopefully, to take that with me for the rest of my career.”
But at the same time, Shiffrin seemed to be saying “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” “My best skiing, I’m not even close to that yet. I didn’t put it out there in Levi, and I didn’t put it out there today.”
As for Shiffrin’s career, the win today solidifies her overall lead in the World Cup standings, giving her 325 points to second-place Wendy Holdener of Switzerland’s 168 points. It also puts her closer to breaking Austrian Marlies Shild Raich’s all-time record of 37 wins, 35 of which were in slalom.
When asked what she thought about that, Shiffrin responded, “I don’t try to process that. When I was little I watched all the videos of Marlies and all the best skiers and I wanted to be the best in the world. At the time, I didn’t know how much time and work went into it. I just wanted to be a really good ski racer. I’m more proud of being the best in the world than beating any record. Besides, if I ever reached 35, which Marlies had, it would take something away from her. She was my inspiration, she was my idol.”
And out in the grandstands, there may have been 1,000 young racers thinking the same thing today about Mikaela Shiffrin.