ASPEN - Mikaela Shiffrin was the promising but relatively unknown U.S. Ski Team member at last year's Aspen Winternational.
She was the wide-eyed, self-effacing 16-year-old with the anxious grin who appeared to cower at the sight of the media and who was happy to defer to established stars such as Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.
She was the girl who admitted to doubting her talent and being a bit overwhelmed by the moment. (Her mother spent much of the morning before the slalom trying to calm Shiffrin's frayed nerves.)
"I told you guys (Saturday) that I don't get nervous, but I was nervous today," the Burke Mountain Academy (Vt.) student admitted after her first run. "I was trying to breathe deeply at the start, and the further I got down, I started believing. Down here, that was some of the best skiing I've had all year so far."
It was no anomaly.
Shiffrin laid down a second solid run, securing a surprise eighth-place finish in just her fourth World Cup start. No other American qualified for a second run.
"She has great technique and a good head, obviously, because she had some pressure here because it was a home race for her, and she managed that," Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch said of Shiffrin afterward. "I think we will hear from her lots of times in the future."
Little more than a month later, Shiffrin clinched her first World Cup podium finish with a third-place result in Lienz, Austria. She went on to win a second consecutive slalom national championship, wrapped up the season ranked 17th in the world in the discipline and was voted World Cup rookie of the year by her peers.
This weekend on Aspen Mountain, the precocious youngster will be a main attraction - regardless of whether Vonn can overcome a recent illness and compete - and represents the host nation's best chance for a slalom medal. That much is certain after Shiffrin's awe-inspiring performance in Levi, Finland, where, on Nov. 10, she skied to a third-place finish.
She shared the podium with former World Cup overall champion Hoefl-Riesch and technical whiz Tanja Poutiainen, of Finland.
"What went really well in Levi was that I executed my plan of putting my training skiing into the race. Nothing special, just go as fast as I can like on any other day of training," Shiffrin wrote in an email to The Aspen Times on Tuesday. "I don't focus on my success too much because I still have so far to go with my skiing, especially in GS (and eventually speed). ... Reminiscing about where I have been won't help me achieve my ultimate goals.
"I am taking a new approach this year and just trying to focus on the task at hand that I have been well prepared for, which is to make one really good turn after another. ... My goal is not to let former success or race location or expectations bother me on race day."
Trying to keep things simple admittedly has become more of a challenge for the teenager. Success has yielded increased attention, which Shiffrin said is flattering but foreign.
"I'm at the point now where someone will be looking at me and say, 'Congratulations,' or, 'Can I have your autograph?' and I'll double check for someone behind me that they might be talking to before I realize that they are addressing me," she joked. "Then I light up - or at least I feel like I do.
"My life is busier with interviews and other appearances, which makes it harder to stay focused and much harder to get my schoolwork done. Plus, it leaves me with very little down time. But that comes with the territory. ... My whole life right now is pretty interesting, I would say."
Shiffrin found some time Saturday to squeeze in a training session on Aspen Mountain, doing laps on the Strawpile course while a flock of young admirers from the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club hung on every turn.
She appeared to be at ease as she chatted with coaches between trips up Lift 1A.
Shiffrin insisted there's no added pressure to perform well in Aspen - the lone U.S. stop on the World Cup circuit and a place so close to home.
"Training went great. I love this hill, partially because it's one of the most challenging on the circuit, which also tends to make it tough for the racers with less experience like me," she wrote. "But I don't have any more or fewer concerns about this course than I have about any other race course. I'll just take it as it comes. At this point, I'd say I feel as comfortable at Aspen as I do anywhere else.
"Success at one venue doesn't necessarily make me super confident for another. However, I must admit that it's comforting to know that my skiing can be right in there with the fastest girls if I can clear my mind and put my solid skiing on the course."
As for what will constitute a successful weekend on Ajax, the always-shrewd Shiffrin steered clear of any bold prognostications.
"A successful weekend and season to me would be having one race after another where I just ski to my potential without freezing up or making careless mistakes."
Coach Alex Hoedlmoser has seen that potential blossom in the past year. He's excited about the possibilities.
"She already has a podium this season," he said in a team news release, "and should have the confidence to go all out and show how good she is."