Shiffrin dominates at World Cup in Killington


NBC ANNOUNCER AND Olympic medalist Doug Lewis interviews Mikaela Shiffrin in Killington. Lewis grew up in Middlebury, learned to ski at the Snow Bowl and raced for Middlebury College and on the downhill World Cup circuit in the 1980s. Photo by Steven Earl Photography

MIKAELA SHIFFRIN SHOWS her powerful style in the giant slalom at the HomeLight Killington World Cup event this past Saturday. The Vermont ski academy grad earned third in the GS, then demolished the field in Sunday’s slalom, where the 24-year-old claimed her 42 World Cub slalom victory — more than the 40 slalom wins that previous record holder Ingemar Stenmark achieved. Photos by Steven Earl Photography

MORE THAN 19,000 enjoy the festive atmosphere on Saturday at the World Cup ski event, hosted by Killington for the fourth year. With snow threatening, 11,000 spectators watched Sunday’s slalom racing. This is the only U.S. stop for women for the World Cup Tour, and Killington is contracted to host the event again in 2020.

WINNER MIKAELA SHIFFRIN, center, lifts her crystal cup and acknowledges cheers from the crowd at Killington Sunday after winning the slalom event at the HomeLight Killington World Cup. Shiffrin finished 2.29 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Petra Vhlova of Slovakia (left) and a whopping 2.73 seconds ahead of third-place Anna Swenn Larsson of Sweden. Photo by Steven Earl Photography
I could hear the crowd down at the base calling me in. I felt like they really, really carried me down the hill. — Mikaela Shiffrin

KILLINGTON — Before her 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.

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. Her teammate Federica Brignone 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 — 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.”

SUNDAY’S SLALOM SLAM

On Sunday, with the forecast of snow, 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 competitions 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.

The combined, two-run time between Shiffrin (1:50:45) and second-place finisher Petra Vhlova of Slovakia — a whopping 2.29 seconds — seemed like an eternity. The spread between Shiffrin and third-place Anna Swenn Larsson of Sweden was even greater — 2.73 seconds.

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.

There were spectacular wipeouts in both the first and second runs. 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 then 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 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’s 62nd World Cup win across all disciplines, making her the runner-up to the women’s record 82 wins former U.S. Team member 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 the threat of a storm on the way, she hustled to catch a jet for Lake Louise in western Canada and the next stop on her World Cup journey.

Lisa Lynn is the editor of our sister publication Vermont Ski + Ride Magazine. Versions of this story originally appeared at vtskiandride.com, where you’ll find additional coverage, as well. 

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