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Mikaela Shiffrin nears World Cup wins record in year of nail-biters, tears, pinch-me moments

Mikaela Shiffrin completed a three-race sweep in Semmering, Austria by taking slalom by. 29 of a second over American Paula Moltzan to claim her 80th World Cup victory, just two shy of Lindsey Vonn's female career record.

Mikaela Shiffrin‘s first heartwarming experience of the season occurred far from TV cameras on an Austrian slope in November. It wasn’t the last.

After the first giant slalom was canceled due to weather, Shiffrin trained slalom in the Tyrolean village of Pitztal. One day, Marlies Schild, one of her ski racing idols, came out with her two sons. The next day, Schild toted her 3-year-old daughter, Magdalena, and slipped the course (a kind of preparation) for Shiffrin.

Shiffrin laughed hysterically at the contrasting sight of Schild, who retired in 2014, making beautiful turns while Magdalena’s skis were bent backwards. Schild’s husband, fellow Austrian star Alpiner Benni Raich, was at the bottom with their two boys. Shiffrin had tears in her eyes, her mom said.

Shiffrin called it “a fan-girl moment” in the first episode of her new YouTube series.

"[Shiffrin] said, ‘I just was thinking somebody pinch me,’” Shiffrin’s mom and coach, Eileen, remembered in a phone interview Tuesday. “You can’t make this stuff up. It’s just so cool.”

Shiffrin had a dream start to her 12th World Cup season once the racing began. For the first time in her career, she won the first two events, slaloms north of the Arctic Circle in Levi, Finland. She then won the four most recent races across three different disciplines, also a career first.

She is now two wins shy of Lindsey Vonn‘s female record 82 career World Cup victories, and four more from Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record 86. She can pass Vonn this week with slaloms in Zagreb, Croatia, on Wednesday and Thursday and giant slaloms in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, on Saturday and Sunday.

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Shiffrin neither dwells on her number of victories nor considers herself a record chaser.

“Mikaela is kind of introverted, and they say that introverts tend to be very, very hard to read,” Eileen said. “If she is thinking about it much, I don’t see it.”

Eileen was there in December 2012 for Shiffrin’s first World Cup win in Åre, Sweden. Stunned, the 17-year-old reportedly said, “I don’t really like the success. ... I like to sleep at night, and I like to hang around the hotel room with my mom. I’m afraid there might be a little hype with this. But I’ll take it. This is what I love to do.”

Asked which wins have stood out since, Eileen noted the two Olympic gold medals (slalom in 2014, giant slalom in 2018) and Shiffrin’s most dominant performance ever by the numbers, her 3.07-second victory in a slalom in Aspen, Colorado, in 2015.

She also has a special place for last week’s effort in Semmering, Austria. Shiffrin won on back-to-back-to-back days, exactly six years after she did the same thing at the same place.

This year’s races were much closer. All of Shiffrin’s six wins this season have come by a margin of fewer than three tenths of a second.

“Each race [last week in Semmering], the second run she came through,” Eileen said. “It’s really a testament to where she is at the moment, mentally.”

In an interview last week, Shiffrin said her perspective gained from last February’s Olympics -- encompassed by that YouTube series title, “Moving Right Along” -- may have played a role in her success so far this season.

Shiffrin spoke to a sports psychologist this summer.

“That has helped her learn to be more independent and figure out who she is,” Eileen said. “If any of us, say, give her some feedback, and she doesn’t agree with it, she’ll either just say right there, ‘Well, I don’t agree with that,’ or she takes it and processes it and spits it back out if she doesn’t like it. And I think that’s helping her.”

Eileen has absorbed since those races, too.

“There are times and places for feedback,” she said. “I’m trying to learn to read Mikaela better, but more importantly, err on the side of saying things in a way that can’t possibly put added pressure on her or can’t be construed as having expectations, because she’s a people pleaser.”

The forecast for Zagreb on Wednesday and Thursday is warmer than normal. That means the wear-and-tear on the slope may have greater impact on the results. Shiffrin knows how fine the differences can be. Her six wins this season came by a combined margin of 1.08 seconds (or 18 hundredths per race).

A little over a month ago, Shiffrin missed the podium at her favorite World Cup stop in Killington, Vermont, for the first time. She went four consecutive tech races without a win. Then she rattled off four in a row, capped by another pinch-me moment: her first World Cup one-two with another American, Paula Moltzan.

Maybe the streak continues this week. No matter what, “the fight,” how Shiffrin describes the battles she embraces not just with other ski racers but also the terrains of courses, is not even half over for a season that runs into late March.

“Momentum changes,” Eileen said. “We of all people know that just when you think things are going great, something catastrophic can happen in the next second. So we take our good times. Roll with the good times as much as we can. Right now, it’s really nice to see her smiling and just happy and feeling good about life. I just think that’s where she’s at.”

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