SPINDLERUV MLYN, Czech Republic –
It wasn’t the typical Sweet-16 birthday celebration that most teenage girls experience.
Up-and-coming ski racing talent Mikaela Shiffrin entered the start house on Friday morning at her first career World Cup race competing in a giant slalom in the Czech Republic. Naturally, It was quite a thrill for the Burke Mountain Academy racer who turned 16 on Sunday.
“It’s like a dream really coming true here,” said Shiffrin, about her first weekend of big-time World Cup racing. “I can’t explain it, but it’s something close to amazing. I’m just excited to be here.”
Shiffrin, who shares time between home in Avon, Colorado, and school in Vermont along with her brother Taylor, was the youngest racer in the 49-competitor field. Starting 43rd, she missed making the second run top 30, but was back at it on Saturday in the slalom, her best event.
While it was Shiffrin’s first experience on the largest stage competing against the world’s elite female ski racers, three-time World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn was locked in a heated battle with Maria Riesch for this season’s overall title.
“Lindsey is so nice. I was nervous about meeting her because she is one of my biggest idols,” said Shiffrin. “Sarah (Schleper) too and really all the U.S. Ski Team girls.”
“They’ve all been great, really supportive and they’ve told me that I could ask them anything,” she said. “I’m mostly trying just to not get in their way.”
“She’s pretty focused and it’s so cool to have somebody with so much talent come to our team,” said four-time Olympian Sarah Schleper about Shiffrin. “You love to see that. It’s making me inspired to ski another year.”
Shiffrin performed admirably in the slalom, narrowly missing making the top 30 for the afternoon run, after finishing 32nd in the first run on the Svaty Petr Black Course, a piste which many of the other racers described as tricky and icy on the upper part. The young racer was a mere 0.05 seconds away from qualifying for the second run.
“I had a couple of mistakes, but knowing that they (other racers) came down and had mistakes too and were still fast makes me want to get to that level even more,” said Shiffrin on Saturday following her run.
“It was a good experience for Mikaela and I'm glad we brought her over,” said U.S. Head Coach, Alex Hoedlmoser. “She handled everything really well and did a great job. She had a big mistake right before the finish and still almost qualified. We know she has the speed to qualify and with another prep period, she's going to be good."
It has been a sensational season thus far for Shiffrin. She won two Nor-Am races in December in Panorama, British Columbia and then duplicated the feat in January at Sunday River, Maine, where she convincingly won slaloms on consecutive days by the large margins of 0.69 and 0.72 seconds.
In February, she captured a bronze medal in slalom at the World Junior Championships in Crans Montana, Switzerland, despite skiing with a 24-hour virus. Of the 108-racer field, Shiffrin was the fifth youngest to take to the hill.
“It really prepared me for this,” she said about her World Championship experience and World Cup debut. “In the finish there are so many cameras around you and people checking equipment. It’s just so intense. And now I come here and it’s another step above. It keeps on getting better. It’s just a surreal experience.”
But what about a tangible birthday present? Every sixteen-year-old girl must receive something that she will cherish for years to come.
“I’m traveling to Vancouver for Nor-Am finals and I’m going to fly business class, that’s my birthday present,” said an enthusiastic Shiffrin. “I’ll have an extended birthday because of the nine-hour time difference. It will be nice.” --Brian Pinelli