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Federica Brignone amps it up after World Cup overall title in Mikaela Shiffrin’s absence

Federica Brignone

Italy’s Federica Brignone celebrates during the podium ceremony after winning the women’s Slalom event at the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Combined in Crans-Montana on February 23, 2020. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Federica Brignone vowed to focus on the upcoming Alpine skiing season rather than dwell on what happened last March, when she became the first Italian woman to win a World Cup overall title.

“I have to keep everything closed for what it was last year,” she said Friday. “But, for sure, emotions are still there.”

Brignone, 30, is the headliner for Saturday’s season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria.

Mikaela Shiffrin is absent (tweaked back). She last raced Jan. 26, when she won a super-G and increased an overall standings lead to 370 points over Brignone, a gap that appeared insurmountable.

Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, died unexpectedly a week later. The American did not race the rest of the season (though she returned to Europe in March for races in Sweden that ended up canceled due to the pandemic).

In her 11th season, Brignone started 25 of the 30 races with these stats: 20 top-10s, 11 podiums and five victories -- all significant career-highs and worthy of the giant crystal globe mailed to her rather than awarded in the typical World Cup Finals presentation. Though she owns Olympic and world championships giant slalom medals, her best previous overall finish was fifth.

Brignone passed Shiffrin for the overall lead in February and was ahead by 145 points when Shiffrin returned to Europe before the last three races were canceled. Even if those races happened, and Shiffrin won all of them, the Italian had a chance to hold her off.

Brignone plans to be busier in her 12th season. She could start every race this fall and winter.

Brignone made her intentions clear by putting back-to-back slaloms in Levi, Finland, on her calendar next month. Slalom is her weakest discipline (the only one she wasn’t top three in the world last season). Levi is the most remote of the European stops on tour, 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Brignone last started there in 2014.

“I just hope not to test positive again,” Brignone said, “and to race every single race.”

Just before starting offseason training in June, Brignone was tested and learned that she, at some point earlier that spring, contracted the coronavirus.

“I discovered I had it, but I didn’t feel it,” she said.

Brignone said everybody in her family and on her team had it. Her mom, 1980 and 1984 Olympic skier and now journalist Maria Rosa Quario, detailed her serious bout for her newspaper, Il Giornale, in early April.

Quario wrote that she began feeling symptoms around March 20, a week after the last World Cup races were canceled and Brignone became the overall champion. She had a 103-plus-degree fever and lacked the strength to move. Quario wrote that Brignone was the one who dialed emergency after an overnight coughing attack. An ambulance took Quario to the hospital, where she spent five days.

“At the end she was OK, and she just needed help,” Brignone, who is sometimes interviewed by her mom at races, said Friday. “After five days, she was OK. I was not scared.”

Brignone is not one for timidity. She started skiing as she learned to walk, scampering around her family’s Milan apartment on plastic skis. Though she made her first World Cup start at age 17, Brignone kept a sense of normalcy.

“I went to school, I had friends, I went partying,” she said years ago.

On her first World Cup trip to the U.S. in 2009, she brought an empty suitcase and stuffed it with Christmas gifts from outlet stores, plus a new pair of Timberlands for herself. She won more money back by finishing third in the giant slalom, a first World Cup podium (in just her fifth start) that motivated her to take skiing more seriously.

A decade later, NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino was fascinated by Brignone’s ability to stay fresh from beginning to end last season with her best skiing across disciplines.

Brignone’s breadth and busy schedule bring to mind what Tina Maze accomplished in 2012-13, racing all 35 times and shattering the World Cup points record. At the end, Maze warned an 18-year-old Shiffrin not to try it because of the exhaustion.

Brignone may be a different breed. “Her mom talks a lot about the fact that she’s super hyperactive, exuberant,” Porino said.

Shiffrin has her own energy but is also known as calculated. So focused that she has thrown up before races due to nervousness and so dedicated to rest and recovery that she has napped between runs.

If both Brignone and Shiffrin are at their best, they could duel for the overall title this season. Brignone called Shiffrin the greatest skier of all time on Friday.

“She’s always focused. She’s always concentrating. She knows what she wants,” Brignone said. “I never had the opportunity to have a dinner or to have time [other than] skiing with her. So I don’t know her without skis, but she’s kind. She’s a great athlete. She’s an example for everybody.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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