Mikaela Shiffrin finishes sixth in GS
SOELDEN, Austria -- Mikaela Shiffrin slouched and stuck out her tongue in frustration when she crossed the finish line at the kickoff event of the Olympic ski season.
The American teenager placed sixth for her best World Cup result in giant slalom on Saturday. But she knew she'd blown what seemed like a sure podium spot.
Toward the end of her second run on the Rettenbach glacier, Shiffrin dug her skis in to the snow too sharply on a right turn -- right before the course flattened out. The mistake cost her nearly 0.7 seconds and she finished 1.62 behind Swiss winner Lara Gut.
"I scrubbed some speed right where I wasn't supposed to," Shiffrin said. "Oh well. You live and you learn."
Kathrin Zettel of Austria finished 0.84 back in second and Olympic GS champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany was third, 1.28 back. American teammate and 2006 Olympic GS champion Julia Mancuso was 27th.
For the 18-year-old Shiffrin, it was a tough way to finish a day when everything else seemed to go perfectly for the skier hailed as the next big thing on the World Cup circuit.
Shiffrin skied flawlessly in the opening leg, improving from her 15th starting position to place fifth on a course that gave many established racers trouble.
Defending overall World Cup winner Tina Maze finished 18th and former overall champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch slid off course just a few gates into her opening leg.
Four-time overall winner Lindsey Vonn skipped the race to give herself more time to recover from right knee surgery.
"It's cool to see the other girls out here and who has improved," said Shiffrin, who had on a new helmet with an American flag. "I think today was a pretty good day."
Shiffrin is already an established star in slalom, having won both the world championship title in Schladming and the season-long World Cup globe in the discipline last season with four more victories.
But her best previous World Cup GS result was eighth in Semmering last December. At worlds, she also finished sixth in the GS.
"Having good results always helps your confidence because it's reassurance that you belong here," Shiffrin said. "Every race last year I would come down and be top 10 I would be like, `OK, I deserve to be here.' So it was just another one of those days."
And Shiffrin has five more GS races to perfect her form before the Sochi Olympics starts on Feb. 7.
"It's always tough when expectations are a little bit too high," said U.S. technical coach Roland Pfeifer, who works almost exclusively with Shiffrin. "This little mistake that she made, that can happen all the time. (Otherwise), she was awesome.
"Everything needs time," Pfeifer added. "One thing is practicing. Another thing is racing. So (she) needs to improve a little more in training then you can do 80 percent in the race and still win. That's our goal."
Mancuso was just lucky to make the top 30 and qualify for the second run. She finished 31st in the opening leg but advanced because Emi Hasegawa of Japan was disqualified for an equipment infraction.
"I wasn't in race mode," Mancuso said. "Soelden is always that strange race that doesn't really mean much. It's just a race in its bubble. So either you have a good day or you don't."
The only other American starter was Megan McJames, who placed 38th in the opening run and did not advance. McJames, who is from Park City, Utah, is self-funded after not making the U.S. team.
After Soelden, there's a three-week break before the circuit resumes with a slalom in Levi, Finland. Shiffrin will be the favorite for that race, where Mancuso and Vonn don't plan to compete.
Conditions in Soelden were perfect for the annual season kickoff, with the sky clear and the snow hard at the start altitude of nearly 10,000 feet. Fans swarmed around the finish area and some lined the steep course, while a brass band added to the festive atmosphere.
Shiffrin still travels the circuit with her mother, Eileen. She recently graduated from high school and is studying German because it's the most common language on the ski circuit.
"I think this year it's a lot more fun for her, so she's just going to embrace the whole thing," Eileen Shiffrin said. "Getting school off her back and she's sort of feeling like she's established herself but also knowing more people helps. ... She's kind of getting used to the environment and all the commotion and all the people. She's a little more relaxed. I'm still not relaxed, but she is."
And while she's getting more accustomed to the Alps, Shiffrin can't wait to go home to Colorado for a couple of days before the race in Finland.
"I'm psyched to have a real, good American cheeseburger," she said.
Before she goes, Shiffrin will watch the men's opener Sunday when teammate Ted Ligety aims for a third consecutive win on the Rettenbach and Bode Miller returns from a season off.