SCHLADMING, Austria — Mikaela Shiffrin might as well be dancing or flying.
That’s what skiing is like for the American teenager these days. The victories and milestones keep piling up, fortifying a U.S. team that is without Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller.
A day after Ted Ligety became the first man to win three gold medals at a world championships in 45 years, Shiffrin became the youngest woman in 39 years to win the slalom title Saturday.
At the age of 17 years, 340 days, Shiffrin shook off a serious bout of nerves to edge local hope Michaela Kirchgasser from the lead before a crowd of 30,000 fans who were nearly all supporting the Austrian.
“Doing what I did on the hill today, especially in the second run, just skiing, is like dancing or flying,” Shiffrin said. “There’s so many ways that I can describe it. But it just is, and it works for me.
“It’s been 17 years in the making and everybody says that it comes do fast but it seems like it’s been forever for me. ... I am just doing what I do and I don’t want to wait.”
The only slalom world champions younger than Shiffrin were Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein in 1974 and Esme Mackinnon of Britain in 1931. Overall, Shiffrin is the youngest women’s world champion since American Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, who was 21 days younger when she won the giant slalom title in 1985.
Shiffrin won her first three races this season to lead the World Cup slalom standings and set up big expectations for her first major championship. That explains the jitters before the opening run in which she placed third.
“My muscles just all morning felt so sluggish and tired like I was still sleeping,” she said. “I just couldn’t move my feet fast enough. As I got down the run my legs started to wake up.”
Between runs, Shiffrin had a hot chocolate and ran around to get the blood flowing.
“And all of sudden two minutes before start I felt my muscles, they were alive,” she said. “And my head cleared and all of a sudden it was like a whole new day.”
For Shiffrin’s mother, Eileen, who was watching from the stands, it wasn’t that simple.
“I was nervous because I knew that she said that she couldn’t feel her legs before the run,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “I am really proud of her. For all the kids out there, here is a lesson — you can (do) something good even if you are really, really nervous.”
After taking the lead in the second run, Shiffrin watched Tanja Poutiainen of Finland and Frida Hansdotter of Sweden fail to match her time. Shiffrin finished in a combined time of 1 minute, 39.85, with Kirchgasser 0.22 behind in second and Hansdotter third, 0.26 back.
After Hansdotter crossed the finish and Shiffrin realized she had won, the American looked around in disbelief before hugging Kirchgasser several times. Shiffrin’s parents, Jeff and Eileen, tearfully embraced in the stands.
During the podium ceremony, Shiffrin breathed heavily but held back tears as she sang the American anthem, with her father videotaping the scene. Shiffrin’s older brother, Taylor, was also there.
Shriffrin’s parents were both ski racers, but it was when Taylor started to race that she realized she wanted to be a part of the sport.
Shiffrin grew up in Colorado and moved to New Hampshire when she was 12. She started skiing in powder in the West then got used to rougher and icier conditions in the Northeast.
She credits former U.S. coach Kirk Dwyer for shaping the way she skis while at the Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. According to her mother, it was Dwyer who discovered that Shiffrin can train “twice as much volume as other kids.”
“When other kids would do eight runs Mikaela would do at least 12 and then take three more,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “(Shiffrin’s current U.S. coach Roland Pfeifer) was surprised when she met her that some of her fastest times would be on her 11th run of a day in a 40-second course. ... She’s just always done that. Ever since she was little she would just go until the sun went down.”
Shiffrin travels the World Cup circuit in Europe with her mother.
“I have been so lucky to meet the coaches I have, and have my family who supports me so well,” Shiffrin said.
Between races, Shiffrin stays either at the U.S. team’s in-season base in Soelden, Austria, or with her mother in an apartment 15 minutes away.
“Often times she stays with me because I can make dinner,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “And I try to make something traditional that we would have at home. And she can do her homework while I do that.”
So what does mom cook? Turkey with cranberries and stuffing — Thanksgiving style — is a regular dish, or something simple like scrambled eggs.
“She likes it because it makes her feel like she’s at home,” Eileen Shiffrin said.
Mom is also a willing partner for tennis matches in the warmer months
“It’s pretty even, still,” Eileen Shiffrin said, when asked who wins in tennis. “She’ll be beating me this summer.”
That’s not surprising considering how quickly Shiffrin is progressing on the slopes.
After earning the first victory of her career in Are, Sweden, in December, Shiffrin became the first American woman to win two World Cup races before age 18 by winning in Zagreb, Croatia, early last month. Then in Flachau she added a third victory to match a record set by Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Proell, who in 1971 was exactly the same age of 17 years, 308 days when she won her third of record 62 races.
Vonn is just three wins from matching Moser-Proell’s all-time wins record but had a season-ending crash in her opening event at these worlds. Miller is sitting this season out to recover from left knee surgery.
Still, with Ligety’s three golds, Shiffrin’s victory and a bronze from Julia Mancuso, the U.S. is assured of finishing first in the medals standings, and Ligety could add another medal in Sunday’s men’s slalom, the final event.
While Ligety’s three victories clearly outshine Shiffrin’s performance, it’s worth putting the teenager’s win in perspective. After all, Vonn didn’t win her first major championship medal until she was 22, and didn’t get her first gold until she was 24. Could Shiffrin — who eventually plans to expand to the speed events — one day outshine even Vonn?
“I guess that’s the big question,” Eileen Shiffrin said. “I guess we’ll have to wait 10 years and find out.”
For now, the next big championship for Shiffrin will be her first Olympics in Sochi next year.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” Shiffrin said. “Right now, I’m just taking it second by second.”