American Mikaela Shiffrin wins Killington World Cup race; thousands of spectators cheer

KILLINGTON — In the last few minutes of the Audi FIS World Cup in Killington this past weekend there were six new leaders. As each of the top eight women flashed down Preston’s Pitch, the last steep pitch on the Superstar trail, the times got faster and faster. Racers were coming down in rapid succession, punching past the 40-odd gates, on average, every 1.2 seconds. At the bottom, a new leader appeared on the scoreboard almost every minute.
Only one 1/100th of a second separated fourth place Norwegian racer Nina Loeseth (who finished second in the GS races Saturday) from fifth place Slovak Petra Vlhova. As commentator and former Olympic racer Doug Lewis (from Salisbury, Vt.) put it, “that’s 12 inches across the finish line.” Then came Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener, edging into third place by 5/10ths of a second; only to see Solvakia’s Veronika Velez Zuzulova nip her by a combined .13 seconds to momentarily take the lead.
And then into the gate came America’s hero Mikaela Shiffrin.
Shiffrin started first on the first run and posted the fastest time at 43:30, besting second place Velez-Zuzulova’s 43:95. Now, running in reverse order for the second run for the top 30 racers, Shiffrin was in familiar territory with the racing world wondering if she would hold on and beat the others?
The crowd of more than 16,000 stood hushed for a minute as Shiffrin stepped into the starting gate. “In slalom the start is pretty close to the finish,” Shiffrin said afterwards. “You could peek over the break of the hill. I could hear them cheering and getting quiet and cheering and getting quiet and chanting ‘USA, USA, USA’—or at least that’s what I hoped it was.”
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 carrying signs heralding their star, began chanting her name.  
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 hometown crowd of friends and family, including her 95-year-old grandmother, Nana.
“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 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. 
At the finish, Shiffrin took off her skis and rushed over to give 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 special 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. The day before she had finished fifth in the giant slalom, an area that she has been working on. But slalom has been Shiffrin’s forte and coming into this event she had won nine straight World Cup slalom events — her 10th win tied a record. 
“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 baubles here and there but then I actually started making a few clean turns and I hope it was looking like I was trying to ski fast because that’s what I was trying to do.”
Her first run was clean and set a pace no one could match. In between runs, she free-skied a couple of runs 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 yet 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 crowd erupted as she came into sight.
“Sometimes hearing the crowd I think, I must be doing well, maybe I can take my foot off the pedal and 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. The crowd erupted.
More than 1,000 young ski racers from clubs from around Vermont and New England 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 screamed as she took off her skis. As she left the finish area, there was an army of school-age kids chasing 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.
“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. 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.  
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 all out there in Levi, and I didn’t put it all out there today. There’s just a lot of things going on. 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: 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 take that with me for the rest of my career.”
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 even 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 and standing crowds, there may have been 1,000 young racers thinking the same thing today about Mikaela Shiffrin.

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