Vonn, Shiffrin and Mancuso: Copper welcomes the U.S. Ski Team for World Cup training
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in Summit Daily News, a sister paper to Tahoe Daily Tribune. The Summit Daily serves Breckenridge, Colorado.
There’s a war brewing in Mikaela Shiffrin.
At 20 years old, the EagleVail, Colorado, native has already taken the ski world by storm, winning slalom after slalom on the World Cup circuit before taking Olympic gold in Sochi at just 18 years old. She’s even slowly started to rack up podiums in giant slalom, including second place at the first World Cup GS in Soelden, Austria on Oct. 24.
This season, Shiffrin has her sights on more than the short course. She’ll make her debut on the speed scene in early December with the World Cup super-G at Lake Louise — the first truly deep race of the season and, as luck would have it, teammate Lindsey Vonn’s best venue. It was the site of her first World Cup downhill win in 2004 and home to her 60th in 2015, which came after 22 months of rehab following the nastiest injury of an injury-plagued career.
The weight of the world hasn’t quite shifted from Vonn’s shoulders — the 31-year-old is still the most talked-about athlete on the U.S. roster — but Shiffrin is now under the same microscope. The young, sharp, energetic tech specialist is already expected to perform well at Lake Louise, and she just might. During downhill training at Copper Mountain last week, Shiffrin managed to outpace Olympic super-G champ Aksel Lund Svindal by nearly two seconds. She admitted that the snow was slow, but still, when she laughingly recalled her training rout of the male Norwegian superstar, there was a touch of competitive fire in her voice.
“It’s easy to go from being confident to being arrogant when you have those expectations,” Shiffrin said after trading her race suit for black jeans and red flannel. “I’ve had moments when I think, ‘I’m the best slalom skier in the world. No one will beat me.’ And, if I’m skiing my best, maybe I can be. The way it’s worked in the past couple of years, when I’m relaxed and in charge, I can be on the podium at least.”
To Shiffrin’s credit, the war between confidence and arrogance is producing one hell of a talented ski racer. She combines the fierce mentality of a young champion with the humble graciousness of a champion nearly a decade older — a balancing act that Vonn has down to a fine art.
At the halfway point between Winter Olympics, it’s the kind of mentality the U.S. Alpine Ski Team needs. The culture is shifting slightly: Vonn and several veterans are nearing the end of their careers at the same time Mikaela and a handful of promising newcomers are ready to take the crown.
“She is noticeably different than any other athlete I’ve seen, even the men,” Shiffrin said about Vonn. “She takes it seriously and she does her job, and I think she’s made more sacrifices than anyone else to get there and I respect that.”
Over the summer, Shiffrin and Vonn took time to chat one-on-one for the first time — no cameras, no flashbulbs, just teammates eyeing the pinnacle of their sport. The two sat down around hot chocolate in New Zealand and discussed nearly everything: The ski circuit, training, friends, family, “normal stuff,” Shiffrin said.
They didn’t talk about the topic on every reporter’s tongue: Will Mikaela make a push for the overall World Cup title this season? It belonged to Vonn for three straight years from 2008-10, and Shiffrin is making an early push for overall points with the Lake Louise super-G.
“I think I’m on the radar — if I wasn’t I wouldn’t be asked,” Shiffrin laughed, then quickly got back to business. “I think that overall is within reach, but it won’t be easy, especially with Lindsey. Obviously, she is a huge favorite and she’s going for it. She’s made that statement. It’s her goal.”
Shiffrin also admits that Vonn has much more experience training for the overall title, not to mention more experience managing her time and race schedule in a decorated career some 11 years old. But, Shiffrin enjoyed a meteoric rise while Vonn was sidelined with injuries, and she learned to thrive as America’s next-best racer.
“My first few years on the World Cup I felt like an underdog,” Shiffrin said. “I felt like I was fighting to make a statement and I like that feeling. That’s when I feel like I do my best.”
But is it healthy to fan the rivalry flames, even when it’s with a teammate? Shiffrin believes so.
“I’m excited to find out what it will be like head to head,” Shiffrin said. “If it does happen, she’s not going to give it to me and I sure as heck won’t give it to her. There might be some cattiness, and that’s fine. Play the rivalries… People love to see the rivalries.”
Mancuso in the wings
Oddly missing from the U.S. women’s roster this season is Tahoe’s Julia Mancuso, yet another Olympic medalist and one of Vonn’s oldest rivals. The two have had a touchy relationship over the years — they’re the same age and often traded podiums as Juniors — but, through it all, the tech-turned-overall specialist Mancuso has managed to stay healthier than her downhill counterpart.
Until last winter.
“The wear and tear of ski racing is hard on your body,” Mancuso said after hobbling into the interview room on crutches. “The past few seasons I’ve been having more significant problems on the hill. This past season was when I decided maybe I need to do more because it was affecting my skiing more than before.”
In early November, Mancuso elected to visit The Steadman Clinic in Vail for surgery on her hip. Before going under the knife, she knew that the five-hour operation would knock her out of World Cup contention this winter. It was a tough decision — she’s never missed an entire season due to injury — but she always had her sights on the big picture.
That hardly means she’ll sit back and relax. Mancuso is adamant about competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, even if it means dealing with the doldrums of recovery.