By John Henderson, reporting this story from Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
Mikaela Shiffrin took a piece of Lindsey Vonn’s crown here Sunday. And with this unprecedented roll Shiffrin has been on, it won’t take long for the Vail star to take it all and be the new queen of women’s skiing.
Continuing a run that has left the women’s World Cup field in ashes, Shiffrin won Sunday’s giant slalom to tie Vonn’s record of 82 World Cup victories. It was Shiffrin’s sixth win in her past seven races, but none was bigger than this.
And at 27, she isn’t finished.
“I never dreamed of achieving something like this,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was there that I even realized it was possible. My whole career has always been like, if I achieve something, I believe it after it’s done. I never believe it before it happens.”
Few who came to pack the stands in this small town in Slovenia’s Julian Alps were as amazed as the woman who did it. None certainly were as emotional. The last racer in the field after leading the first run, Shiffrin crossed the finish line, pumped her fists then went into quiet repose, holding her head in her hands. She sat in the snow, fighting back tears.
On the victory stand during the national anthem, she lost the fight and the tears flowed. One person she wanted to hold her wasn’t there: Her father died in a home accident three years ago.
“My dad used to be there taking pictures,” she said. “Most races these days I’ll think about him and maybe refocus and that’s been a big improvement for me since last season. I can have moments when I think about him and feel emotional and then still be able to bring the energy for the second run. But when I’m singing the national anthem, before I ever won my first World Cup, he said, ‘You’d better memorize the words of the national anthem because if you ever win you’d better sing it.’ So I always think about him when I’m up there.”
Her combined time of 1:52.53 topped Italy’s Federica Brignone’s 1:53.30 and Switzerland’s Lara Gut-Behrami’s 1:53.50. It also upped her lead in the overall race, giving her 1,115 points to Petra Vlhova’s 696.
After Shiffrin’s sixth place finish in Saturday’s giant slalom, it seemed like she would have to wait until Tuesday in Flachau, Austria, where she’ll race slalom, her specialty.
But her finish on Sunday brought 82 wins sooner than she anticipated.
“Eighty-two. That’s a lot,” she said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to happen today. I was positive it wasn’t going to happen yesterday. But for some reason I felt I wasn’t going to get 82 unless it’s a slalom race and then everybody's going to say, ‘She can’t win unless it’s slalom.’ It’s not going to be as exciting somehow. But maybe I could push really hard today and fix some things from the first race here, [and] see if I can earn a good result.”
Shiffrin’s 82nd win also ends a lot of questions – for now.
Ever since the season’s start, Vonn’s 82 wins hung in front of Shiffrin like a finish line, with people in the sport wondering when Shiffrin would catch up. It happened faster than even Schiffrin expected: She opened the season with two wins in Levi, Finland, then had an unprecedented five straight triumphs starting Dec. 18.
However, it wasn’t Vonn’s number that drove her.
“When I’m in the start gate, I cannot think about winning,” Shiffrin said. “I have to think about my skiing and that’s the only chance I have. To say I did that the right way 82 times in my career, especially when everybody’s talking about the winning, I’m proud of that.”
With history on the line, her mind was racing faster than she skied the first run. Something was off and she could feel it.
“I felt quite nervous, which isn’t a good feeling,” she said. “The stress I have in my body is not very good but my skiing was really strong. I guess I was a bit excited because when I imagined this run, 99 times out of 100 that I imagined it, I lost the lead. Then when I actually came down to the finish, I still had the green [first-place light]. Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe that actually worked. I really, really imagined myself messing it up today.”
It’s also a huge victory for U.S. Skiing, which now has two Americans tied for the most women’s wins in history.
“Wow!” said Patrick Riml, U.S. Skiing’s alpine director. “You don’t realize it when you’re in the midst of it and then people start talking about it, you get to 50 and you go, ‘Holy cow!’ Especially this year, this is not normal. You can’t take it for granted that you’re going to win every single race. If you have five wins in a row, that’s crazy.”
Now, new questions emerge. When will Shiffrin be the sole No. 1? She has her chance Tuesday in Flachau with both starts at night. Then comes a downhill Saturday in St. Anton, Austria.
“I’m looking forward to Flachau,” she said. “It’s a hill I’ve had challenges on in the past but I’ve also had really great races. I want to ski the strong slalom I did in Zagreb [Wednesday] and it was just a really good feeling I had. I hope I can recover between now and Flachau and bring out the fire but [night races are] tough. If I have a good first run, I don’t start until 9:45 [p.m.] on the second run and normally I’m well asleep by then.”
Once 83 achieved, next up is Ingemar Stenmark’s men’s record of 86. But first thing's first: Shiffrin has a queen's throne awaiting her.
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