American teen, 16, earns WCup slalom podium

By ERIC WILLEMSEN, The Associated Press
Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 7:09 p.m.

LIENZ, Austria — Teenager Mikaela Shiffrin used to watch skiers Marlies Schild and Lindsey Vonn on television when she was a kid.

On Thursday, the 16-year-old high school student was standing alongside Schild on a World Cup slalom podium, leaving U.S. teammate Vonn more than a second and a half behind.

Shiffrin skied a stunning second run to finish third in a race won by her Austrian idol, becoming the youngest female racer to make the podium in a slalom since American Tamara McKinney in 1978.

“I have been working so hard for this moment,” said the teen from Vail, Colo. “Schild, Zettel, Hosp, Vonn; I have been watching all these top girls for the past 10 years. And now I am here myself, it really feels crazy.”

Shiffrin started her eighth World Cup event as No. 40 and ended the opening run in 12th position before posting the fastest time of the second leg. She finished 1.30 behind Schild, who lost 0.24 to Shiffrin on the second run.

Tina Maze of Slovenia was second. Vonn finished 18th and retained the lead in the overall World Cup standings on a memorable day for her American teammate.

“It’s the first time I’ve been talking to Marlies in person,” Shiffrin said. “I couldn’t believe she was congratulating me after the race. What a moment!”

Shiffrin, who became the youngest U.S. national slalom champion last spring, impressed with an attacking, error-free second run that included turns extremely close to the gates.

“I saw her in Aspen, she’s a real talent,” Schild said of Shiffrin’s eight-place slalom finish there last month. “I see a lot of myself in the way she is skiing. She has all what it takes to become a great champion in the near future.”

Shiffrin made her debut on the World Cup just before her 16th birthday last March, starting in two World Cup races in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic. For now, she’s only focussing on slalom and giant slalom, leaving the speed events for down the road.

She’s accompanied by her mother, Eileen, who also helps the high school student with her homework. Shiffrin lives in an apartment near Soelden, Austria, which is the U.S. team’s training base in Europe.

While Shiffrin stepped onto the podium for the first time, the 30-year-old Schild equaled Vreni Schneider’s record with her 47th World Cup slalom podium.

“I have learned something from so many racers,” Shiffrin said. “From Marlies, getting her 31st win here. From Lindsey, with so many wins in all the disciplines. From the whole U.S team, with all their energy and the positive attitude.”

While Shiffrin scored a breakthrough, her U.S. teammate and oldest racer at 32, Sarah Schleper, retired after 15 years on the circuit.

Schleper took part in the final race of her career by skiing down in a coffee-colored dress, carrying a camera and picking up her 3-year-old son Lasse midway through her run.

Schleper’s 186-race career on the World Cup circuit started in 1995 — the year Shiffrin was born.

“This is so special for the U.S team,” Shiffrin said. “Sarah has been an unstoppable force for so many years. She’s so positive, she loves racing more than anybody, and she has brought so many people into skiing.”

Schleper, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, said that “Mikaela wants to be the best skier in the world as soon as she can … She is capable of great things.”

After a solid first run, Vonn lost speed and time going into the final section of her second run, finishing 3.01 off the lead. The three-time champion still has the overall lead with 612 points, followed by Schild (440) and Austria’s Anna Fenninger (368).

Defending overall champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany had costly mistakes in the steep final part of both her runs and finished ninth, 1.99 behind Schild. In the overall standings, Hoefl-Riesch is fifth with 326 points.

Vonn hasn’t been on a slalom podium for more than two years.

“It’s getting closer (to the podium),” she said. “I am hoping to get back in the (starting) top 15 and that will help a lot.”

Vonn said she has gained confidence in the technical events again this season, helped by her victory in the giant slalom in October in Soelden, Austria.

“I know I have the speed, it’s a matter of putting two runs together,” she said. “I just feel comfortable in any race right now. Every time I am in the starting gate, I am going to try to win. I am just having fun.”

U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso skied out just a few seconds after the start of her first run when her right ski hit a gate and she lost balance.

Another slalom event is scheduled Tuesday in Zagreb, Croatia.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/29/sports/skiing/american-teen-16-earns-wcup-slalom-podium/ printed on August 21, 2014