Watching History’s Best Slalom Racer

 

KILLINGTON, VT — Before her very first World Cup race at Killington, Mikaela Shiffrin was having anxiety attacks, crying and throwing up. That was in November, 2016. At the time, Shiffrin was 20 years old, but she already had five years of World Cup racing under her belt. By the end of that season, she would have earned 31 wins and the overall championship.

This past Saturday, things were very different. “I’m sort of from here and I just felt so much pressure to do well at Killington back then,” the Burke Mountain Academy grad said at a press conference, following her third-place finish in the giant slalom event at the HomeLight Killington World Cup, the only U.S. stop for women on the international FIS World Cup tour, ski racing’s biggest arena.

After working with a sports psychologist, Shiffrin’s nerves calmed down. “The biggest difference was this note I got after the race from a fan on Instagram in 2017 saying, ‘We just want you to know that we can see you’re under a lot of pressure and we’re just so happy you’re here and the World Cup is at Killington and no matter what, we’re supporting you.’ And that’s when I realized, nobody really cares!”

Well, sort of.

Federica Brignone of Italy, celebrating her second place finish. Photo by Steven Earl/USSA

More than 19,500 fans showed up at Killington on Saturday, Nov. 30 to watch Shiffrin, now 24, and already considered one of the greatest all-time ski racers, compete in the giant slalom—and to enjoy a free post-race concert by Waitsfield native and Grammy-award nominated singer/songwriter Grace Potter.

Shiffrin seemed relaxed through her first run on the giant slalom course, where gates are placed at wider intervals than slalom gates are.  Almost on cruise control, Shiffrin skied to fifth place, 0.41 seconds behind the leader, Italy’s Marta Bassino. But on the second run, on a course that had been shortened due to high winds at the top of the Superstar run, Shiffrin sped up enough to move into third, finishing 0.29 seconds behind Bassino who took the top spot and her teammate, Federica Brignone, who finished just 0.03 seconds ahead of Shiffrin to take second.

Alice Robinson, the 17-year-old from New Zealand who defeated Shiffrin in an October giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, fell on her first run. The only other U.S. Ski Team racer to make the top 30 (the cut-off for a second run) was Shiffrin’s fellow Burke Mountain Academy grad and Dartmouth ski team member, Nina O’Brien. She finished Saturday’s race in 28th.

“I don’t really have rivalries,” Shiffrin said after Saturday’s race. “I have been one of the racers to take myself too seriously pretty much all the time. Over the years I’ve gotten to know a couple of girls and I think of them as girls, not just competitors and that’s helped. When you look at the human behind the numbers you realize you can be friends and competitors and even if I have a bad day, I can also be really happy for that person and that’s taken the pressure off.”

Mikaela Shiffrin in the giant slalom. Photo by Brooks Curran

Sunday’s Slalom Slam

On Sunday, with the forecast of snow on the way, the crowds were thinner but that didn’t stop journalists from around the world from pressing against the roped-off area at the finish for a chance to interview top racers who came to Killington from more than 26 countries and as far away as New Zealand and Japan. The races were broadcast to more than 60 nations and Middlebury native and former Olympic downhill racer Doug Lewis sat in the NBC announcers chair, calling the play-by-play at the top of his lungs, seemingly as excited for the women at the back of the pack as he was for the leaders.

Outside of sprint running or swimming, slalom ski racing is one of the shortest games in sports. After building up a lead of 1.13 seconds on her first run, it took Mikaela Shiffrin just 58.47 seconds to flash through 63 gates drilled into the ice on Superstar and capture her 62nd slalom victory and her fourth consecutive win at the Killington World Cup on her second run.

But what seemed like an eternity was the combined time she put between her and second-place finisher Petra Vhlova of Slovakia–a whopping 2.29 seconds—and 2.73 seconds ahead of Anna Swenn Larsson of Sweden over the two runs.

To put that in perspective, in two seconds the earth travels 37 miles through space. It took Usain Bolt 9.58 seconds to do the fastest 100-yard dash in history. In ski racing terms, as Dan Leever, the new owner of Ski Racing Magazine put it: “If Mikaela was racing head to head with Petra Vhlova she would have been two or three gates ahead. In a slalom race, that’s huge.” In 2015 at the final World Cup of the season in Aspen, Shiffrin broke a 47-year record for a winning margin in a slalom race, putting 3.07 seconds between herself and the second-place finisher.

As Leever put it, the Killington course “was good for separation.” Meaning, that those skiers with the highest technical skills could navigate a course best described as icy and could put in a bigger lead than usual on others. That separation can impact other racers. As Leever pointed out, “Under FIS rules, if a competitor’s overall time is more than eight percent greater than the winning time, irrespective of the rank achieved, no points will be awarded.” Shiffrin’s combined time was 1:50:45. Fortunately, even the last place finisher finished within that, but it was close.

Shiffrin skis homestretch, cheered on by the crowds. Photo by Brooks Curran

There were spectacular wipeouts in both the first and second run. Federica Brignone, the Italian who took second in Saturday’s giant slalom, caught an edge then seemingly tripped over a gate, her entire body launching into the air like she’d been thrown by a bull, before skidding down the slope. In the first run, Paula Moltzan, the University of Vermont ski racer who has been finishing consistently in the top 20 on the World Cup in the last season, had a heartbreaking fall. Before she got thrown off balance, she was skiing fast enough to have earned fifth place. Shiffrin was the only American of six starters to make a second run. Of the 60 starters, only 43 even made it through the first run on the course without falling or missing a gate.

Watching Shiffrin, who said her first run had been “as close to perfect” as she thought it could be, was like watching a whole different sport. As others flashed their skis from one side to the other, swinging arms and tails to one side of a gate than forcibly slashing the opposite way, Shiffrin just flowed through the gates in a rhythm that was almost mesmerizing. While watching her on TV is one thing, standing at the bottom of Superstar, looking up at the rock-hard slope – one usually covered in moguls but now flat as a board—was something else.

“I’ve been working on the technical aspects that help keep me stable on a course like this while other racers might be going after it a bit. Still, it was pretty wild, and I actually thought I was out of the course a few times. There’s always a parallel universe where I tomahawk down the course. But I could hear the crowd down at the base calling me in. I felt like they really, really carried me down the hill,” she said.

The cheers from the crowd, estimated at 11,000 on Sunday, 19,000 on Saturday (and 6,000 for Friday’s night concert) rose to a deafening crescendo as Shiffrin just lengthened the 1.13 second lead, she had from the first run. At the finish, she was flushed and smiling, waving to the hometown crowd. This marked her 42nd slalom win, solidifying her place in history as the winningest slalom racer ever – a spot she earned a few weeks earlier by breaking Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s 40-win run. It was Shiffrin 62nd World Cup win across all disciplines, making her a runner-up to the women’s record 82 wins former U.S. Team, Lindsey Vonn set before retiring last year at age 34.

Standing on the podium as snow began to fall, Shiffrin told announcer Doug Lewis” “Killington is so special to me and you guys keep bringing it every year – despite freezing snow, sunshine, wind, ice…”

Then, with a plane to catch and the threat of a storm on the way, she hustled to catch a jet for Lake Louise and the next stop on her World Cup journey.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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