PHOTO: Jon Margolis
The weekend belonged to Mikaela Shiffrin. The decorated ski racer slammed two World Cup wins--a giant slalom and a slalom--on American terrain in front of a home audience, and in so doing, also locked down her fourth slalom crystal globe. Saturday added up to her 25th World Cup slalom win and set her up for the overall World Cup title, to be determined in Aspen this week. Capping off the victories, today is Shiffrin's 22nd birthday.
But the most telling moment of the World Cup races at Squaw Valley, California, last weekend belonged to Resi Steigler--and it was a striking moment of defeat. Eleventh on the start list--four behind Shiffrin--Steigler, 31, (whose father, Pepi, is an Olympic gold medalist) banged her poles twice in anticipation, found a split second to focus, then pushed out the gate. A rhythm started to build in her first five turns, but onto the sixth, she lost her balance. She clipped a gate, ejected from a ski, and started sliding down the steep, firm fall line, on her back, then on her stomach, at times face first, for well over 10 seconds until she crashed into the net. Immediately, she jumped up, whacked her pole in the snow with the full force of her body, and let it all out--the frustration, the anger, the disappointment--on the racecourse.
The women of the World Cup came to Squaw Valley to win, not to lose. The Red Dog course demanded the most of every racer, and every single one of them stepped up to the challenge, competing before a crowd of thousands. But only one person won. Even Shiffrin wavered in exhaustion at the end of her final lap on Saturday.
That this event hosted only the women of the World Cup and displayed so much strength and emotion was not lost on the crowd. "This is what these women dedicated their lives to," said Jen Gurecki, a spectator and the founder of Coalition Snow, who was handing out flyers all day to raise awareness for her ski company's crowdfunding campaign to make skis for young girls. "To me, seeing that raw emotion demonstrated how seriously these women take their sport. It highlighted a different side to women than maybe people expect to see."
Hosting the World Cup also demanded much from Squaw Valley Ski Resort, where intense snowfall and subsequent warming created adverse racing conditions.
"We had a really good plan about 10 days ago" to prep the racecourse, said Kyle Crezee, Squaw Valley's World Cup organizing chairman. "We did that, put a bunch of water on the hill. We closed it up, locked it up, and it was race ready. It was a World Cup surface."
Then, 2-3 feet of snow fell five days before the race.
"We had slip crews up there in the middle of the night trying to battle the storms, trying to stay ahead of 4, 5, 6 inches an hour, trying to slip that surface off," said Crezee. After the storm cleared, a course crew scraped the snow off. "In the end, we were able to keep that surface in tact," said Crezee.
Then, spring arrived. While the sky was calm both days of races, temperatures soared into the 50s and the snow across the resort instantly turned to sticky, dreadfully slow, and hot pow. Crews slipped the course after every racer and constantly checked the gates, ensuring they held upright, sometimes driving wedges of wood to provide an anchor.
Squaw's efforts prevailed and 90 athletes from 19 countries arrived to compete. The last time a World Cup Alpine ski event was hosted at Squaw, the year was 1969 and Billy Kidd won the slalom. This year, a festival in the base village with concerts and booths and beer gardens surrounded the races. Thousands of fans showed up, coming from as close as Reno and the Bay Area and as far as France.
"Just hearing the crowd, it's so invigorating to be competing in the U.S. and on home soil. Being an American racing in America, it's just this extra bit of energy," said Julia Mancuso, who was not competing last weekend because of injury and so experienced the race from a different vantage, that of a spectator. "All I can do is go out and cheer. I'm one of the racers that should be out there, so I should also be the biggest fan...I can really see how much it brings to this community."
Compared to other World Cup venues Mancuso has competed on, the Red Dog face is steeper, and unique in that spectators can see the entire slalom course from the bottom. "There aren't too many places where you get to do that," she said. In the 1,267 vertical feet of the giant slalom, 48 gates were placed. In the 700 vertical feet of the slalom, more than 60 gates were placed. For comparison's sake, most usually ski the face of Red Dog in less than 10 turns. "It's just a worker," said Mancuso. "You're just turning all the time."
"Just hearing the crowd, it's so invigorating to be competing in the U.S. and on home soil. Being an American racing in America, it's just this extra bit of energy.” --Julia Mancuso
Both races were conducted in a reverse 30 format, so the top 30 finishers from the first lap were placed in reverse order for the second lap, with the best going last. Which meant that Shiffrin raced her second lap in both giant slalom and slalom at the very end of the day--upping the suspension for a crowd rooting for their American hero.
In Friday's giant slalom, Italian Federica Brignone came up from behind with a dynamic run that boosted her from fourth to second place. The pressure was on Tessa Worley (FRA) to fend off Shiffrin, but she couldn't push past Brignone, who held the lead by .86 seconds.
The last racer of the giant slalom, Shiffrin banged the gates methodically and gained a wide lead. She dropped speed slightly coming around the course's dogleg, with some chattering. But she pushed onward, fighting through the tightly stacked gates in the lower third of the course and across the finish line to a very close first place--she sped past Brignone by a seventh of a second. The crowd erupted in cow bells and Shiffrin skidded to a stop, checked the scoreboard, and when she saw her time in green and the yellow square with the number 1, took a breath, sank her skis into a wide plow, and put her hands to her mouth to absorb the savored win.
"I've skied this hill before, I'm really lucky. A lot of the girls I'm competing against have not," said Shiffrin to the crowd while standing atop the podium. "But I just knew that no matter what hill I'm skiing on, I had to attack like crazy. All these girls are going for wins and I'm so happy with how that went today."
Shiffrin said her celebration that night would be tame. She needed a good night's sleep to come out the next day and do it again. "I can't wait to ski slalom on this hill."
And her anticipation did not disappoint. The slalom on Saturday was equally as challenging, and many girls disqualified after missing or straddling gates. The best racers were the ones who made it look easy. Austrian Bernadette Schild kept up a rhythm, her hips swiveling skis around the gates while her upper body remained poised, and placed third. Sarka Strachova (CZE) confidently and gradually gained time, grabbing second. Wendy Holdener (SUI) held first place after her first lap, but on run two she fell mere feet away from the finish line, giving up the win to Shiffrin.
In the slalom, Shiffrin's victory was met with heavy breathing, a swirl of high fives and interviews, and a spray of champagne on top of the podium. She had first by over a second, but still said she wasn't proud of her skiing. "I think it was very scrappy and I'm proud of the fight," she told NBC in an interview at the finish line. "It's not my best skiing, but to fight my way to the finish and come away with another win today, sometimes it's better to do that than to feel like I skied unbelieveable. It was a fight, it was a lot of mistakes and a lot of recoveries, but it was worth it in the end."
This week, the racers travel to Aspen for the World Cup Finals. It is the first time the finals have been held outside of Europe since 1997.