Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By Michelle Kaufman
The Miami Herald
Lindsey Vonn is out with a bum knee.
Mikaela Shiffrin reacts after winning the women’s slalom Alpine Ski World Cup in Levi, Finnish Lapland, last November.
2013 Associated Press File Photo
None of the women on the U.S. figure skating team is favored for gold.
Enter, as if on cue, Mikaela Shiffrin, 18-year-old American skiing sensation, reigning slalom world champion, blonde and telegenic, down-to-earth and chatty. And, poised to win one, possibly two, gold medals.
There was little doubt, as Shiffrin tore up slalom race courses all around the world last year, she would be a featured personality come time for the Sochi Winter Olympics. Now with the Opening Ceremonies on Friday looming, the teen from Eagle-Vail, Colo., is an undisputed breakout star, the U.S. Olympic team’s “It Girl.”
The Sports Illustrated Olympic Preview magazine came out last week. Who’s on one of the four covers? Shiffrin, front and center, smiling alongside the headline: “The Next Lindsey Vonn.”
She is already famous and known simply as “Mika” in Europe, where last February in Schladming, Austria, her career truly took off. At 17, she became the youngest female world ski champion since 1985 and the youngest American ever to hold a world title.
So far this season, she has won three of five World Cup slalom races and finished second once, making her a bona-fide favorite in Sochi. She could also medal in the giant slalom, where through five races she has a second-place finish and a third-place finish.
“I’m going to Sochi with such a positive feeling,” she said on a conference call last week. “I’m coming off a pretty good season. All I know is positive. I’m excited to go and race my heart out and see if I can go for the gold.
“Of course, it’s a really big bummer that Lindsey is not going to be there. We’re all going to really miss her a lot. But I’m also really excited. I’m not really seeing pressure as a negative.”
She has good vibes about both disciplines.
“My slalom is at a high level, and I’m really excited to keep taking it up a notch,” she said. “I’m really excited for GS in Sochi. It comes first [in the schedule]. I’m really feeling solid in the GS. Every day, I do something better. I’m getting faster. I really feel like my first win is at the tip of my fingers.”
Looking at her lineage, it is hardly a surprise Shiffrin wound up a world-class ski racer. Her mother, Eileen, a former intensive-care nurse, was a top-ranked high school skier in western Massachusetts. Her father, Jeff, an anesthesiologist, skied for Dartmouth. There was no question their children would learn to ski, especially once they chose to settle in Vail, Colo., near some of the world’s most popular ski resorts.
Mikaela and her brother Taylor, who is two years older and skis at the University of Denver, hit the slopes as soon as they could walk. They were both racers by second grade.
“When I was younger – up until about 7 years old, before I started competing and training – the reason I liked skiing was because I could go into the lodge and have hot chocolate and French fries every day,” she said. “That was more my motivation for getting on the hill.”
But once she started racing, she was hooked. Give her a finish line and a clock, and she will press her shins into those boots and let it rip, zigzagging through the gates with perfect form, never satisfied.
“When I started competing, that’s when I developed my passion for the sport,” Shiffrin said. “My drive right now is competition. I really love to see how much faster I can get from run to run and day to day. It’s a very measurable thing. I can say I was a second faster on the third run and try to figure out why.”
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