From Lyme to Prime Time
Teen Sensation Shiffrin’s World Cup Win Generates Buzz
Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, speeds past a pole on her way to clock the second fastest time during the first run of an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom, in Are, Sweden. (Associated Press - Giovanni Auletta)
Mikaela Shiffrin smiles at the finish line after winning the alpine women’s World Cup slalom in Are, Sweden, on Thursday. Shiffrin is a former Lyme resident. (Associated Press - Giovanni Auletta)
Mikaela Shiffrin, center, of the United States, celebrates on podium with runner-up Frida Hansdotter, left, of Sweden, and Tina Maze, of Slovenia, third placed, after the women's World Cup slalom in Sweden. (Associated Press - Giovanni Auletta)
Mikaela Shiffrin may not be the youngest American woman to ever win a World Cup ski race. But the 17-year-old former Upper Valley skier is the youngest in more than 40 years.
On Thursday, under the lights at the Are ski resort in Sweden, Shiffrin skied an almost perfect second run of slalom to claim the victory. Her two-run time was 0.29 seconds ahead of Swedish favorite Frida Hansdotter, and 0.52 seconds ahead of overall World Cup leader Tina Maze in third.
In second place behind Hansdotter after the first run, Shiffrin was inspecting the course for the second run and kept telling herself, “Today’s my day, this is it, this is the day.”
But then she remembered that she had focused on results and winning in previous races and then “given it away.” In the past year, she has finished third twice in World Cup slaloms.
“So any time any sort of a thought about winning or what the result might be or how the other girls are doing, any time that sort of thinking crept into my head, I pushed it away and just kept focusing on going as fast as I could go and doing the best that I could do,” she said on a call from Sweden late Thursday night.
Although Shiffrin now calls Vail, Colo., home, she and her family lived in Lyme from 2003 to 2008 while her dad, Jeffrey Shiffrin, worked as an anesthesiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. On winter nights after school, Mikaela and her older brother, Taylor, would eat Spaghetti-Os in the car on the way to Storrs Hill in Lebanon, then train for three hours under the lights.
The memory was with her as she took to the slopes of Are.
“When we first got out on the hill, it was still a little bit light, and it was so serene and peaceful,” she said. “It actually felt a little bit like I used to feel when I would go out on Storrs Hill or train in the East where everything is so quiet. It really reminded me of those days that were just skiing for the sake of skiing.”
And learning to ski under the lights at Storrs Hill and Whaleback contributed to her first World Cup win.
“Deep in my muscle memory was this feeling that it’s home. I know what it’s like to train under the lights and race under the lights, and that was just huge,” she said.
Shiffrin’s World Cup win also conjured up memories for Rick Colt, a Lebanon Outing Club coach. Even as a youngster, Shiffrin blew away her peers, and Colt saw his job as primarily trying to find her competition that would push her. As an 8-year-old, she was already beating kids in the next age bracket (9-10 years old). At the 2008 Whistler Cup, Shiffrin, as a 13-year-old, won the slalom of this major international junior race by a staggering 3.35 seconds. She took the giant slalom as well. Two years later, at the 2010 Trofeo Topolino — another top international race for juniors — Shiffrin capped an almost perfect season by winning the GS and taking the slalom by a jaw-dropping 3.36 seconds.
While some claim that it was Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who pushed her into ski racing, Colt saw it differently.
“(Mikaela) pushed herself, she really wanted it,” he said. “At Storrs Hill, we gave her a place to continue progressing.”
In addition to drive, Shiffrin has talent that showed through in the gates, as well.
“She’s always had a quickness to transition in her turns,” said Jeffrey Shiffrin, who ski-raced for Dartmouth. “You see her fly between turns. Most people hang onto the turn trying to get to the next one. She just flows to it.”
In Åre, Shiffrin really did look like she flowed through the courses. After Hansdotter could not catch her in the slalom, Shiffrin was momentarily stunned, a wide-eyed teen with that what-just-happened look. It was the only time she looked her age. The rest of the night, her maturity showed through — in talking articulately to the media and in her actions after the race where she visited with a young Swedish girl named Emma who has leukemia.
“I was told I skied like Marcel Hirscher tonight, and I said that comment was the best Christmas present I could have, but it was not,” she posted on Facebook (Hirscher is the reigning overall men’s World Cup champion). “The best Christmas present I could ever get was to see Emma smile. Thank you.”
“I thought that was very special,” said Colt, who saw the post on Facebook. “Mikaela is so down to earth.”
Shiffrin hopes she can graduate from Burke Mountain Academy this spring — although studying and the demands of winning are constantly tugging at her off-hill time. From Sweden, she headed back to Austria, her European base, with her mom. This weekend, she will race another World Cup slalom and GS in Semmering, Austria — this time wearing the red bib of the overall World Cup slalom leader. On the horizon is the 2013 World Championships in February.
“My only focus is just to ski my best every day,” she said. “I’ll be happy with a world championship medal or a 15th place, as long as I’m skiing my best.”
As for the two Americans who were younger than Shiffrin when they won World Cups: Kiki Cutter was 16 when she won a slalom in 1968 and Judy Nagel was 17 years, 6 months, and 1 day old when she claimed a slalom victory in 1969. Shiffrin was 17 years, 9 months, and 7 days old on Thursday.
“I met Mikaela last summer, and she is indeed a great kid with a wonderful ski future in front of her,” Cutter said. “I am sure that we are going to see many more victories from Mikaela.”