Resi Stiegler

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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Lindsey Vonn's risk-it-all strategy: overall, rewarding

Last season, after making an incredible late charge, Lindsey Vonn lost out at a chance at her fourth straight overall World Cup title by a measly three points, in part because of bad weather on the very last day. She said at the time she was "devastated." This season, Lindsey has skied with unmistakable passion, and that emotion has been further channeled by everything going on behind the scenes in her personal life, including the split early in the season from her husband, Thomas, and a reconciliation with her father, Alan Kildow.

When she skis, Lindsey has said, she is "very clear-minded," on her game like never before -- bluntly, like very few athletes, American or otherwise, in any sport, have been in any season.

Racing Friday in Are, Sweden, Lindsey won a World Cup giant slalom.

It was her 11th victory of the season, and 52nd of her career. It locked up the 2012 overall World Cup title -- obviously, her fourth in five years.

"I don't know what to say. I just wanted to have two really aggressive runs today," Lindsey said at the bottom of the hill, her U.S. teammates cheering.

"I have nothing to lose. I'm just having fun. My sister is here," younger sister Laura. "My teammates are so cool, cheering me on in the finish."

She added, "I am just really excited."

Some facts and figures, and keep in mind two things. These numbers and statistics can only suggest how dominant Lindsey has been. And the season is not yet over:

Lindsey's four World Cup overall titles are the most by an American skier. Phil Mahre had three.

The most-ever? Austria's Annemarie Moser-Pröll, with six, won in the 1970s. Lindsey, with those four, is now alone in second place. Croatia's Janica Kostelic, Switzerland's Vreni Schneider and Austria's Petra Kronberger had three apiece.

The 52 career victories leave her only 10 behind Moser-Pröll. Lindsey got to 50, in early February, faster than any female racer in history. Lindsey's first win came on Dec. 3, 2004, a downhill in Lake Louise, Canada.

The 11 victories this season match the U.S. record Lindsey set two seasons ago.

For the season, Lindsey now has 1,808 World Cup points. That's an American record.

Lindsey had 1,788 points when she won the 2009 overall.

In second place in the 2012 overall standings: Tina Maze of Slovenia, with 1,254 points. That's a 554-point lead. Again, and for emphasis: Lindsey lost last year, to her friend Maria Riesch of Germany, by three.

There are five races left on the World Cup calendar.

No female racer has reached 2,000. In 2006, Kostelic reached 1,970 points. In 1997, Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg got to 1,960.

On the men's side, Austria's Hermann Maier reached exactly 2,000 points in -- there was a nice symmetry here -- in 2000.

You bet Lindsey has noticed she is within striking distance of 2,000.

In prior seasons, she said in a conference call later Friday with American reporters, 2k had never seemed possible. "Trying to beat the 2,000-point barrier is something extremely significant. This opportunity may never happen in my career again," she said, adding a moment later, "I'm going to fight in every race until the end."

Indeed, she said, that's what this entire season has been about -- seizing focus, opportunity and momentum and not letting go.

She said she was "disappointed" to have lost last year by three, wanted "to come out this season starting strong and keep the momentum going," and "then the problems in my personal life … have made me a little more focused."

Last year, she said, taught her "to seize every opportunity, to put everything on the line," in every race.

Moreover, skiing has been a source of stability and solace. Racing, and in particular this season, has been a complete release from everything else.

She said, "I mean, I have had a lot of difficult times in my life, just with injuries and family issues," a reference to the arc of her entire career. "But, you know, skiing is always the constant in my life and I can always rely on it."

The 2012 overall title is the 15th of Lindsey's career and the third of this season; she had previously clinched the downhill and super-combined.

The giant slalom that Lindsey won Friday? That was the second giant slalom victory of her career, both this season, testament to the men's skis she switched to this year and the ferocious workouts she did last summer after coming up those three points shy last March.

Men's skis are longer and more rigid. To control them, Lindsey had to be in distinctly better shape. The advantage of using those longer, stiffer skis is that they enable Lindsey to ski a straighter line. A straighter line means she can, in essence, go faster. Thus: new success this season in the giant slalom.

The first giant slalom victory kick-started the season -- in the very first race, last October, in Soelden, Austria.

On Friday, in flat light and in bumpy, slushy conditions, Lindsey held a lead of seven-hundredths of a second after the first run. That marked the first time in her career Lindsey had ever held a first-run lead in giant slalom.

"I didn't want to let this opportunity pass me by," she said later. "I knew I could win but I still wanted to risk everything. I knew I had to risk everything."

So she really turned it on, leading at every interval to extend her winning margin to 48-hundredths of a second.

Federica Brignone of Italy, the giant slalom world championships silver medalist, came in second; Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, who won both GS races last weekend in Ofterschwang, finished third, 1.05 seconds back.

Two other Americans finished in the top-15: 28th birthday girl Julia Mancuso, eighth, Resi Stiegler, continuing her late-season surge, 13th.

"I am thrilled," Lindsey said, excited and breathing hard, in the finish area.

Asked if she was going to be taking time off to celebrate, she said, jokingly, "I wish."

No one wishes. Of course the calendar will turn soon enough to spring. And even all great things have to come to an end.

But there are still five races to go.

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."