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Mikaela Shiffrin can finish a season of challenges as the world’s best Alpine skier

Mikaela Shiffrin

Second placed US skier Mikaela Shiffrin reacts during the podium ceremony of the Women’s Super-G event at the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in Lenzerheide, on March 5, 2022. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Mikaela Shiffrin reached the last stop of a challenging season -- physically, emotionally and not just on the Olympic stage -- with a chance to finish it by lifting a 20-pound crystal globe trophy that goes to the world’s best overall ski racer.

“The energy is for sure low now,” Shiffrin said in Are, Sweden, last weekend, while noting her skiing was “feeling pretty on point” after third- and ninth-place World Cup finishes. “It’s pretty typical once the season goes on. Towards the end you start to feel that a little bit.”

Shiffrin has a not-so-comfortable-but-significant 56-point lead over Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova in the standings for the World Cup overall title, the most prestigious annual prize in Alpine skiing.

There are four races left in the 37-race season that began in October. One each in downhill, super-G, slalom and giant slalom. They are Wednesday through Sunday at the World Cup Finals in Courchevel and Meribel in France. A broadcast schedule is here.

The World Cup points system works like this: 100 points to a race winner, 80 points to second place, 60 points to third, 50 points to fourth and on down a descending scale through the 15th skier at finals. At non-finals races, it goes through the 30th finisher.

The overall title goes to the skier who accumulates the most points across all races.

So the head-to-head between Shiffrin, looking to tie Lindsey Vonn with a fourth overall title, and Vlhova, who last year became the first Slovakian to lift the big globe, could come down to the 37th and last race this season, the giant slalom on Sunday.

It’s a new experience for Shiffrin. She clinched her three previous overall titles before those seasons’ finals. The last was in 2019, when she won 17 times in arguably the greatest season in history. Her life challenges since that high have been well-documented.

It’s tempting to connect the World Cup to the most recent adversity at the Olympics, to wonder if that 20-pound trophy could at all mitigate leaving China without a medal.

“I think you can’t take the sting out of that experience in China,” Mike Day, one of Shiffrin’s coaches, said from France on Monday. "[The overall title] would have meaning, but, ultimately, I think the experience in China’s something that will be long lasting, and this is something separate from that.”

Shiffrin began the season peppered with questions about potentially racing all five individual events at the Olympics. One wondered what was possible after she won four medals in four events at the February 2021 World Championships on a lack of training in speed events.

Then, on Oct. 23, she won the season-opening race outright for the first time in her career -- World Cup victory No. 70. Two days later came the first significant obstacle of the campaign, a severe, spasm-like back injury that curtailed a planned two-week training block in her native Colorado.

The previous season, separate acute back tightness affected her for two months and led her to say, at age 25, it was the first injury that posed some threat to her ski racing career.

As she did in 2020-21, Shiffrin recovered and returned to winning races. She actually had the most consistent start to a season of her career, finishing first or second in all six slaloms or giant slaloms heading into Christmas, plus a pair of third-place finishes in super-Gs.

Then she announced Dec. 27 that she tested positive for the coronavirus with mild symptoms. Shiffrin went more than a week without skiing, missing a GS and slalom that could prove significant in the overall race by this week’s end.

What little exercise she could do while quarantined in an Austrian hotel room was limited to things like bed frame pull-ups.

Again, Shiffrin climbed back on the top podium step, winning the last World Cup slalom before the Olympics.

At the Olympics, her best finish in five individual races was ninth. Since, she placed second, fourth, third and ninth between two World Cup stops, breaking her tie with Vlhova in the overall standings. Though Vlhova gained 61 points back over the most recent two races.

Day said Shiffrin’s team had very little focus on the overall title chase this season. His first time encountering it after the Olympics wasn’t in conversation with Shiffrin, but reading about it in the press.

Shiffrin has long emphasized the day-to-day training, the fight and not the results. Day echoed that. He called this the most difficult full season her career, not counting the abbreviated 2019-20 campaign, when she took a break after her father’s death that Feb. 2.

“It’s not necessarily the 17-win seasons that ultimately define you,” Day said, noting Shiffrin’s record-breaking 2018-19, the last time she was crowned the world’s best skier. “It’s the ones that you really have to claw and fight.”

Yet he did not deny that what happens this week will have an impact on how team Shiffrin looks back on an unforgettable 2021-22.

“I think you probably need to ask me about that six days from now,” he said.

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