Teen skier Shiffrin eager to begin year in Aspen

Posted Nov. 23, 2011, at 7:10 p.m.

VAIL, Colo. — Being one of the youngest members of the U.S. ski team, teenager Mikaela Shiffrin is concerned about keeping up.

With her chemistry course, not competitors on the course.

On the slopes, Shiffrin is a quick study and is already being dubbed the next Lindsey Vonn, a lofty label that both flatters and flabbergasts the 16-year-old high school junior.

Still, as she attempts to make her mark in her first full World Cup season, she’s also determined to maintain good marks.

That’s why Shiffrin is bringing her mom to Europe to help with homework and ease homesickness as she takes the giant leap from club athlete to “B” team member, where she will compete in the big leagues of ski racing alongside her idols, Olympic gold medalists Julia Mancuso and Vonn.

This type of promotion doesn’t occur all that often. But Shiffrin isn’t just any up-and-coming skier, either.

She may not have instant name recognition now, but very well could by the time the flame is lit for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Shiffrin burst on the scene last season by capturing a bronze medal at the junior world championships and followed it up with a slalom title at the U.S. championships.

Along with it came the inevitable comparisons to Vonn. But Shiffrin insists, with a nonchalant shoulder shrug after finishing up a recent training run, that it’s not added pressure.

“It’s just skiing,” said Shiffrin, who will begin her season this weekend at the World Cup stop in Aspen. “Sometimes you can get caught up in what’s going on around you. But all you really have to do is worry about what you’re doing right now.”

About this time last season, Shiffrin was competing on the Nor-Am circuit — skiing’s equivalent of the minors — while attending Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont.

So this is quite a steep step up.

To maintain some semblance of normalcy for their daughter, the Shiffrin family hatched a plan that means splitting up for the time being. Her father, Jeff, and 19-year-old brother, Taylor, who’s attempting to make the U.S. development squad, will remain in Eagle, Colo., and visit as often as their schedules permit.

Her mom, Eileen, will venture with her overseas when the World Cup season gets into full swing and rent an apartment near Soelden, Austria, the team’s training base while in Europe. This way, Shiffrin will have a place to crash in between competitions, not to mention home-cooked meals and a study partner.

“We’ll focus on getting school work done, getting skiing in, keep it really quiet and sane,” her mom said. “She’s been shooting for this for a long time. But she’s just 16 — we want to help her stay grounded.”

Recently, Shiffrin basically wrapped up an entire semester of precalculus and trigonometry in just three weeks, diving through one lesson after another provided by her school.

Now, she’s turning her attention toward figuring out molecular equations in chemistry assignments.

“This has to be easier” than precalculus, Eileen Shiffrin said, laughing.

So as not to overwhelm herself, Mikaela Shiffrin will mainly concentrate on the slalom and giant slalom this season, leaving the speed events for down the road.

“This is just going to be an experience year for her,” said Roland Pfeifer, the women’s technical coach. “She has no pressure.”

Still, finishing in the top 10 of a race wouldn’t necessarily be a stretch.

Last season, Shiffrin served as a forerunner in the slalom at the Aspen event, winding through the twisting course first to make sure it was suitable for the rest of the World Cup skiers. She had no advanced scouting report and no lay of the land. Yet Shiffrin still blazed down with a time so fast it might just have qualified for a second run had she been among the competitors.

That’s a glimpse of her potential.

So was this: Right before her 16th birthday last March, Shiffrin took part in two World Cup races in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, becoming one of the youngest Americans to step into a World Cup starting gate. She was just fractions of a second away from earning a second pass in the slalom.

“She thinks about skiing 24 hours a day,” Pfeifer said. “I’m not going to say when she’s going to finish in the top, but it’s going to (happen), that’s for sure.”

Not so long ago, Vonn was the skier being heralded as the next big thing, another version of her idol, Picabo Street.

So Vonn, winner of 42 World Cup races, understands exactly what Shiffrin is going through. She also has a simple suggestion for her younger teammate: Be yourself.

A fast learner on and off the slopes, it is advice Shiffrin has already taken to heart.

“They take it so seriously. It’s a profession for them but it’s more than that — they love the sport, too,” Shiffrin said. “I want to be like that when I’m their age.”

To prepare for the season, Shiffrin made the trek to New Zealand and Chile for the team’s training camps — on her own. It was a chance to see how she would fare away from home.

She did just fine, too, especially with teammates such as Resi Stiegler and Sarah Schleper taking her under their wing. Stiegler gives her advice on equipment along with tips on the course, while Schleper serves as more of a mentor.

“Mikaela wants to be the best skier in the world as soon as she can,” Schleper said. “She is capable of great things.”

For now, she’s simply trying to learn as much as she can.

“I’m just going to try my best, ski my best with the best skiers in the world,” Shiffrin said. “That’s really all I’m trying to do. We’ll see where that takes me.”

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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham can be reached at http://twitter.com/pgraham34

 

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