For Mikaela Shiffrin, a Triumph That Leaves Skiing, and Her, Breathless
ARE, Sweden — Mikaela Shiffrin could not breathe. She had no energy. Self-doubt had set in.
Then came some encouragement from her coaches: “The reality is you have to push for 60 seconds. Everything else doesn’t matter. Just 60 seconds.”
They were perhaps the sweetest 60 seconds of her career.
Fighting off a lung infection, Shiffrin delivered her most resilient performance yet to capture the slalom title at the world championships on Saturday and become the first Alpine skier — male or female — to win the same event at four straight worlds.
The drama added another layer of legend around Shiffrin, 23, who is on course to be the greatest skier ever.
“I was just not feeling very good for the whole day,” she said, “except for the 60 seconds that it mattered.”
After crossing the line, she collapsed to the snow for a while. She got up only because she thought she was being disrespectful to the two skiers yet to come down.
First it was Anna Swenn Larsson, who finished 0.58 of a second behind Shiffrin to take silver. Then came the first-run leader, Wendy Holdener, who went around a few gates before going off the course.
It was official: Shiffrin was a world champion for the fifth time — and the second time at these championships, having won the super-G on the opening day of competition in Are.
She barely had energy to celebrate.
“A testament to her grittiness,” her coach, Jeff Lackie, said, “and what she was able to accomplish in that second run was nothing short of incredible.”
This was the kind of situation that Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin’s idol, used to revel in: battling adversity, proving the critics wrong, coming from behind.
Now Vonn is retired, and Shiffrin is center stage — the face of women’s Alpine skiing. This was some way to begin the post-Vonn era.
Shiffrin woke up on Saturday feeling sick. After the first run of the slalom, she was in third place — 0.15 of a second behind Holdener.
Shiffrin had a chest cold, her team said, and her energy was low. She watched her rivals — Holdener, Swenn Larsson and the eventual bronze medalist, Petra Vlhova — in the first run and thought she might not have much more to give.
She said her illness might have taken away any nerves before the second leg, which — hours after the race — was just a blur to her. The most vivid memory she had was from halfway down the course, when she felt she “ran out of oxygen.”
Despite everything, the second run was close to perfection. It was the fastest by 0.62 of a second.
“Technically,” said Livio Magoni, Vlhova’s coach, “it’s worth watching over and over again to learn from.”
Tears flowed from Shiffrin after Swenn Larsson came down the hill to give Sweden its first medal of these championships. Shiffrin cried at the flower ceremony, and again in interviews afterward.
“I’m not sure why I was crying quite a lot more than I usually do, and it’s quite embarrassing,” Shiffrin said. “But it is emotional for a lot of reasons. I can’t explain every reason right now. It would take much too long.”
Shiffrin had a roller-coaster two weeks in central Sweden. First there was the high of the super-G gold. Then came her exchanges on social media in response to comments from Vonn and Bode Miller questioning her decision to skip the Alpine combined in favor of going to nearby Norway for training.
There was the relative disappointment of finishing third in the giant slalom, and finally came this drama-filled day in the slalom.
She finished the championships tied with Ted Ligety for the most gold medals by an American at the worlds. In doing so, she moved ahead of Miller, another of her childhood idols.
With seven medals at the worlds, she is one off the American record held by Vonn. Shiffrin has seven gold medals at the worlds and the Olympics, and is up to 56 victories on the World Cup circuit — 26 behind Vonn and 30 off the career record of Ingemar Stenmark.
A reminder: Shiffrin is only 23, not yet considered at her peak.
After accepting a cough drop to soothe her throat, Shiffrin was asked what made the win so memorable.
“In the moments that it counted, my team and I were able to focus on the true task and the reason we’re here,” she said. “That’s something special.”
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