MERIBEL, France — Amid a whirlwind 48 hours high in the French Alps, Mikaela Shiffrin woke up to the news that LeBron James had broken the NBA scoring record and the American skier immediately drew comparisons to her own record-breaking season.
Inspired by James’ accomplishment, Shiffrin went out a few hours later and put an end to her uncharacteristically miserable run in major races lately by winning a long-sought after medal, a silver, in the super-G at the world championships on Wednesday.
“My news alert was (about James),” Shiffrin said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s cool for him.’ I wasn’t sure if it was a dream, though, so it’s good to know that it’s true.
“It’s another example of incredible accomplishments happening in sport that will continue to drive future generations to try to reset the boundaries, reset the records, and keep pushing the level of sports, whether it’s skiing or it’s basketball or it’s anything. It symbolizes this concept that we keep working harder and trying to do better.”
Shiffrin sure has been working hard and pushing the boundaries in her sport.
Just like every point that James has scored over the past month on the basketball court, so has Shiffrin’s every turn and result on the ski slopes been dissected in great detail as she first broke Lindsey Vonn’s women’s record of 82 World Cup wins. She has since moved within one victory of Ingemar Stenmark’s overall mark of 86 wins.
While races at worlds don’t count toward World Cup totals, Shiffrin’s nightmarish performance at last year’s Beijing Olympics kept pestering her as soon as she arrived in the posh resort of Meribel — or rather, everyone else kept pestering her about it. Then she threw away what appeared destined to be a gold-medal winning run in the combined event that opened the championships on Monday when she straddled a gate three turns from the finish of her slalom run.
Her experience in Beijing, when she didn’t finish three of her five individual events and didn’t win a medal despite entering as one of the expected stars of the Olympics, came back to haunt her.
“After the combined, I was like, ‘You have got to be kidding me. My DNF (Did Not Finish) rate now in my entire career, over 50% of it is at the Olympics or world championships. Like, come on,’” Shiffrin recounted. “It’s almost funny. And it’s only funny because I was able to win a medal today.
“So now there’s a sense of the pressure — the pressure is not off — but there’s for sure a little bit of relief.”
The relief didn’t come immediately after her run, though.
On a technical course made more difficult by a shady section midway down between super-sunny conditions on the rest of the hill, Shiffrin appeared disappointed when she crossed the line in second place, a slim 0.11 seconds behind Italian gold medalist Marta Bassino, who had come down right before her.
While nearly all of the later skiers were faster than Bassino and Shiffrin on the top of the course, none could match the pair in the twisty section in the shadows or on the zig-zag giant slalom-like turns on the bottom, as the sun appeared to start melting the surface and slowing others down.
Cornelia Huetter of Austria and Kajsa Vickhoff Lie of Norway — early starters like Bassino and Shiffrin — shared the bronze, both 0.33 behind Bassino.
“It was just a long wait to see if it stuck to the end of the race. So it’s a lot of emotions,” said Shiffrin, who was reduced to tears in a post-race interview with Austrian broadcaster ORF.
Shiffrin’s 12th medal in 15 career races at worlds put her in sole possession of second place on the all-time list for the most medals won by a woman at the sport’s next biggest event after the Olympics, trailing only German skier Christl Cranz, who won 15 in the 1930s. She also now has a medal of each color in super-G at worlds — not bad for a skier who began as a technical specialist focusing only on slalom and giant slalom.
Before her Beijing debacle, Shiffrin won medals in all four of her races at the last worlds in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, a year earlier. Which made her performance at the Olympics all the more surprising.
“For a lot of people, that was the main focus,” U.S. ski team Alpine director Patrick Riml said. “I’m glad that Mikaela and her staff, everybody around really focused on her skiing. She proved today that she’s in a good spot. She’s a champion. Even with all the talk about (Beijing) and all the questions she received about that, she put that aside and did a good job today.”
Shiffrin now has more than a week off before her final events of giant slalom and slalom. She’ll likely go to nearby Italy for two or three days of training, while also keeping an eye on how her boyfriend, Norwegian skier Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, fares in Thursday’s super-G and Sunday’s men’s downhill. He’ll be favored to win both, having led the opening downhill training session Wednesday.
“It’s very busy here,” Riml said. “We want to make sure we have a good, quiet calm set up where she can focus on training and and then should be good coming back for slalom and GS.”
After worlds, it’s back to chasing Stenmark’s record on the World Cup circuit. LeBron has his record and Shiffrin is likely to get hers soon enough.
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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