Marlies Schild

Shiffrin's 'sure as heck' gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The first Olympics he went to, in his very first race, 15-year-old Michael Phelps took fifth place. He got right back in the pool and, soon enough, he set his first world record. In his next Olympic race — which, because of the calendar, had to wait four years — he won gold. In her first Olympic race, the women’s giant slalom here Tuesday, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin took fifth. She said, “I think this is supposed to happen,” adding, “The next Olympics I go to, I sure as heck am not getting fifth.”

Women's slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin // photo courtesy Tom Kelly and U.S. Ski Team

There are moments, even at the Olympics, that are genuinely special. These moments make memories that last through the years. They also make cross-over stars, the ones who can make it big outside the confines of a niche like alpine skiing.

Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t have to wait four full years. She sure as heck gave it the full Friday Night Lights treatment here at Rosa Khutor, throwing down two incredible — and very different — runs to win gold in the women’s slalom.

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Resi Stiegler's "dream come true" breakthrough

In 2006, Resi Stiegler, born and raised in Jackson Hole, Wyo., raced at the Torino Winter Olympics. She was just a couple months past her 20th birthday. She took 11th in the combined, 12th in the slalom. The future seemed so bright. In October, 2007, she took fourth in the slalom at the World Cup stop in Reiteralm, Austria, just off the podium. Then came two more top-10 World Cup slalom finishes that December, one in Canada, the other in Aspen. Her breakthrough seemed -- right there.

It had to wait until Sunday.

In the interim, she has known pain and seen hospitals and rehab centers. Repeatedly.

Resi Stiegler is tough.

At the World Cup stop in Ofterschwang, Germany, skiing from bib 35, an almost-impossible position, and in slushy, warm snow, Stiegler raced Sunday to second-place, beaten only by five-hundredths of a second, by Canada's Erin Mielzynsky.

It was Mielzynsky's first World Cup podium finish, too. Her winning combined time over the two runs: 1:53.59. She became the first Canadian to win a World Cup slalom since 1971, according to the authoritative Hank McKee at

Austria's Marlies Schild, who has won all but one of the season's slalom races, finished third, two-hundredths of a second behind Stiegler.

Lindsey Vonn crashed in the first run. Vonn still holds a commanding lead in the overall standings; the tour now moves to Are, Sweden, for the final giant slalom and slalom races of the season. After that comes the World Cup finals in Schladming, Austria.

No one has ever doubted that Resi Stiegler had talent.

Or fantastic bloodlines. Her dad, Pepi, racing for Austria, is a three-time Olympic medalist. He won gold in the slalom in Innsbruck in 1964; in the giant slalom, he won silver in 1960 in Squaw Valley and bronze in 1964.

Beginning in December, 2007, Resi Stiegler has endured a string of injuries that are so freakishly bad, almost weird, it almost makes you wince just thinking about it.

That December, a crash in Lienz, Austria, sent her sliding under the fence and into the trees. She broke her left forearm and right shinbone and tore ligaments in her right knee. Here is video of the crash.

She returned in time for the 2009 world championships in Val d'Isere, France; there, French President Nikolas Sarkozy signed her racing bib.  A week later, she broke her foot and was out for the rest of the season.

In November, 2009, after competing in the early-season races in Soelden, Austria, and Levi, Finland, Stiegler, preparing for the U.S. World Cup stop in Aspen, fell while training in Colorado. She broke her left leg. That kept her out of the 2010 Olympics.

In a conference call Sunday, Stiegler talked at length about "growing up and having different thoughts than I had when I was 20."

She said, "This year was kind of that for me. I knew I had been skiing really fast. I didn't want to get just top-20, top-25. I wanted to be in the top-5. And I knew I was skiing well enough to do that.

"But to put it down on that day is a whole another mental game. For me, I had to learn how to focus in on -- what negative thoughts I didn't need, to think about something that was positive, just get the job done.  For me, that was the easiest way to overcome a lot of the negative mental activity I had, focusing on what I wanted to do, that I just wanted to have, an amazing run."

Stiegler's first run Sunday catapulted her from the 35th start slot into ninth, 82-hundredths back. Her second run shot her into the lead; only Mielzynsky would go faster.

Alex Hoedlmoser, the U.S. women's team's head coach, said in a statement that he was "super-, super-psyched for Resi," adding, "This is so amazing for her and it's hard to put it into words, actually."

Asked on that conference call if finishing in second place felt like first, Stiegler laughed.

"Yes, it did," she said. "I have visualized this since I was a child. I feel like I won. To me I don't feel like I -- you know, whether I got first or second or third today, the podium was a huge accomplishment.

"… I never in my wildest dreams thought it was going to happen this year. It's just a dream come true for me. Because the feeling is amazing."

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.

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."