Something new for Shiffrin: A teammate challenges her at world championships
The Associated Press
CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Even if it wasn’t gold, Mikaela Shiffrin’s 13th medal at a major championship felt different from all her previous ones.
For the first time in a technical race, she had an American teammate next to her competing for victory.
Shiffrin and Nina O’Brien had the two fastest times in the opening run of the women’s giant slalom at the world championships on Thursday.
Before the second run, they stood close on the hill inspecting the course. Shared a lift ride up the hill. And exchanged kind words before skiing down, one after the other.
It felt like an ordinary training session, rather than the decisive run for gold.
While O’Brien dropped to 10th, Shiffrin earned a silver medal behind Swiss winner Lara Gut-Behrami to give her one of each color at these worlds — and with her best event, slalom, still to come.
In total, Shiffrin now has 10 career world championship medals to go with three Olympic ones.
“I have never been in this position to look at my teammate when we’re both going down battling for a medal,” Shiffrin said. “The last two racers with a chance for a medal is always a special feeling but having your teammate there, it feels different. It’s really cool.”
For the U.S. ski team this was a first — but not a fluke.
In slalom and GS, it was all about Shiffrin for many years. But the whole tech team is having a breakout season on the World Cup circuit, with several personal bests for O’Brien, AJ Hurt, and Paula Moltzan, who even had her first career podium in Austria in November.
“I think it’s really cool and we are lucky to have Mikaela as our teammate for leading the charge and inspiring us all,” O’Brien said. “But it’s also fun to see that this next group of us can bring in some speed as well.”
While Shiffrin works with her own coaching staff, the team trains together when schedules allow.
“It’s always super productive and valuable training with her, just watching her and talking with her about skiing,” O’Brien said. “She’s got a pretty insane understanding of the sport, like no one else I know.”
Shiffrin’s support went beyond shared training at a World Cup GS in Austria last season, when she was fastest in the first run and took the lift back up the hill to support late starter O’Brien.
Shiffrin briefly experienced the feeling of going head-to-head with a teammate for gold at the worlds two years ago, when she and Lindsey Vonn aimed for the super-G victory.
While Vonn crashed in the penultimate race of her career, Shiffrin claimed the gold.
The growing strength of the tech team pleases Shiffrin.
“They have just an amazing attitude, it’s a really nice atmosphere now,” she said. “It just feels like we can be happy for each other, push each other, and it’s straightforward. There is no drama, it’s just racing and skiing.”
Former teammate Sarah Schleper, who retired in 2011 but returned to the slopes and competes for Mexico at the worlds, hailed the impact of Shiffrin on the team.
“The U.S. team is back on track for success and I think Mikaela has a lot to do with it,” Schleper said. “It inspires all of our kids back home, which is great. They just see it is a possibility to make it here and compete with the Europeans and be competitive.”
Approaching her best career result, O’Brien overcame a scare in between runs when her skis initially failed the standard equipment test by organizers.
The International Ski Federation checks ski size and setup after each run based on strict rules. Racers whose skis don’t meet the criteria are disqualified.
There was an issue with the plate in the binding on one of O’Brien’s skis, which exceeded the allowed height by a mere 0.1 millimeters after a screw got loose.
Ultimately, O’Brien was cleared to start in the final run.
“That was a little bit of drama,” she said.
After going her entire career without a major championship title, Gut-Behrami added a second gold medal to her burgeoning collection from this year’s worlds.
The Swiss skier made up her deficit to Shiffrin with a blistering final leg to beat the American by two-hundredths of a second.
“GS has always been so important for me in my entire career,” the Swiss skier said. “I always knew that if I’m skiing well in GS then it’s easy to be fast even in the other disciplines.”
Katharina Liensberger of Austria was 0.09 behind in third in what was the closest finish ever of a women’s giant slalom at the worlds.
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