Mikaela Shiffrin’s top-10 Aspen moment

At 17, Lindsey Kildow — you know her now as Lindsey Vonn — raced in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

When she was not quite 16 — 15 years, eight months — Julia Mancuso made her World Cup début.

Mikaela Shiffrin is 16 years old. She didn’t just start Sunday in the slalom at the Aspen World Cup tour stop. She finished eighth.

Moreover, Shiffrin was the only American to make the 30-woman second run.

Mancuso, who on Saturday had finished third in the giant slalom, finished 31st in the first run. Resi Stiegler and Sarah Schleper skied out. Lindsey Vonn, nursing a sore back, didn’t start; she anticipates racing in next week’s speed events in Lake Louise, up in Canada.

Marlies Schild of Austria, who is the best slalom skier in the world — winner not only of the 2011 World Cup season slalom title but also the 2011 world champion — won the race, a year after missing the first gate.

Her winning margin: a full 1.19 seconds over Sweden’s Maria Pietilae-Holmner. She had won last year’s race.

German’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch — the defending overall champion — took third, another 77-hundredths back.

The story of the day, though, was the top-10 finish of a 16-year-old American.

16-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin and fans after Mikaela's eighth-place slalom finish at the Aspen World Cup tour stop // photo: Doug Haney, U.S. Ski Team

This is the thing about the American alpine program that now gives the Europeans fits.

It’s not just that the United States produces stars — Vonn, Mancuso and, on the men’s side, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety.

It’s that the Americans produce stars and depth.

It’s now two-plus years until the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. And now here comes another promising 16-year-old American. She’s from Vail and was skiing the family driveway at 3.

The Europeans actually got to see Mikaela for the first time last spring, at the Spindleruv Mlyn World Cup stop in the Czech Republic. So Aspen wasn’t her World Cup début – Spindleruv Mlyn was. Her birthday came the day after the races there ended, so she was still just 15; she started both the giant slalom and slalom, missing the final slalom run by only five-hundredths of a second.

Three weeks later, back in the States, at the U.S. national championships in Winter Park, Colo., she won the slalom. She was named the 2011 Ski Racing Magazine Junior of the Year. Former winners of the award? The likes of Vonn and Mancuso.

On Saturday in Aspen, she started the giant slalom, finishing 35th, again just barely missing the cut. On the way to the lift for Sunday’s first slalom run, she told the U.S. Ski Team’s Doug Haney, “Today is going to be a lot of fun.”

She finished in the top 12 in the first run, then in the second moved up to eighth.

By definition, alpine skiing rewards those who have been there. It gives the best start positions and bib numbers to those deemed likeliest to win; fair or not, that’s the system. That makes it all that much tougher to break through. Look at the bib numbers of the women who finished ahead of Shiffrin on Sunday: 6, 4, 3, 1, 2, 5, 10.

Shiffrin’s start position in that first run, when the snow going around the gates was bound to be all choppy and rutty: 37.

When you understand that sort of nuance, it makes Shiffrin’s breakthrough on Sunday all the more impressive.

“All I can say is this is unreal,” she said afterward.

“I’ll for sure be excited for the next five months,” meaning the duration of the World Cup season, “but it’s also probably going to take five years to even realize that I’m racing World Cup.”

She also said, “I’ve been watching all these athletes studiously to try and figure out how I can get to their level. I know that will never change.”

And, “This is a great accomplishment but I still have a long ways to go. I’ll try to keep things grounded and keep moving forward.”

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