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Mikaela Shiffrin sees the finish line of an impossible season, with one big race left

Grappling with the loss of her father amid a pandemic, Mikaela Shiffrin is emerging stronger than ever from days of doubt, learning a lot about herself and resiliency throughout a challenging Alpine World Cup season.

Mikaela Shiffrin‘s success this season is more remarkable given it came after a preseason injury that could continue to effect her as the 2022 Winter Olympics approach.

Shiffrin, after back pain sidelined her nearly six months ago, played catch-up throughout the autumn and winter. She made it to this week’s World Cup Finals (TV schedule here).

She performed well this season given the much-talked-about circumstances, winning a record-tying four medals at February’s world championships.

She also has a chance to finish the season as the top-ranked slalom skier for a seventh time in nine years -- if she wins Saturday’s race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova finishes third or worse.

“Being here and being in the running for it is beyond what I thought was possible,” said Shiffrin, who has always placed more emphasis on long-term consistency than individual victories or medals. “There was just so many things that went absolutely wrong in the preparation period.”

Such as what caused her to miss the season-opening giant slalom in October in Soelden, Austria.

“The first injury I’ve had that actually posed some threat to my career as a ski racer,” Shiffrin wrote three weeks ago.

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Shiffrin elaborated Thursday. She wondered for several weeks this fall the effect her back, which has “always been a little bit of a thing,” she said, will have on her career. Injuries in that area of the body are common in ski racing.

“I was thinking, OK, I know this is fairly acute, and it’s just in the beginning of the process, and I need to let it heal. If this is just going to be an ongoing thing any time I hit a bumpy or icy spot in a GS course or a slalom course, or pretty much any time I’m skiing and then I just blow up my back to the point where I have to lay in bed for three days, I’m not going to be able to ski,” she said.

Countryman Ted Ligety, who at 36 is 10 years older than Shiffrin, said his back was in control of his skiing for six years before the worst sciatic pain of his life forced him into retirement before his planned farewell race last month.

Shiffrin felt tightness in different areas well into December. Perhaps January until extensive rehab and therapy fully eased it.

“That was frustrating and felt limiting,” she said. “Then I kind of got over that hump. Since then I felt, I want to say, normal. Maybe not like 16-years-old normal, but pretty good.”

In the past, when Shiffrin won slaloms by more than a second, she had room for error. Not this year.

She noted a rise in the level of women’s slalom, led by Vlhova, who supplanted Shiffrin as the world’s best last year. Younger Austrian Katharina Liensberger beat them both at worlds and then won the most recent World Cup slalom last Saturday.

“There’s quite a few girls who are skiing at a very high level,” Shiffrin said. “Just a lot faster and quicker than what I feel like we’ve seen before.

“The problem that I see is that if I have any runs at all in slalom training at any point where I’m not at my absolute highest pace, it won’t be good enough.”

Shiffrin also saw a trend in course setting to higher speeds on the fall line, forcing more adjustments.

“The event has sort of shifted a little bit from what it even was the 2018-19 season,” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races that year, including eight of the nine slaloms. “My coaches have adjusted the way they’re studying courses and training a little bit to throw me off guard and make me a bit more uncomfortable.”

In eight World Cup slaloms this season, she has two wins, six podiums and no finishes worse than fifth after going 300 days between races following her father’s death on Feb. 2, 2020. She was also at a build-up disadvantage to European skiers who had more offseason training opportunities amid the pandemic.

Shiffrin, the most successful slalom skier in history, struggled this winter with trusting herself with speed throughout a run.

“Sometimes I wonder if I go as fast as I can in this particular section, I might not make it past this particular section,” she said. “The mental side of things has definitely taken longer to come back than even the physical side of things this year.”

After the World Cup Finals, she will stay in Europe for ski testing. She hopes the upcoming offseason, leading into an Olympic year, will bring more normal training. Specifically, the ability to bring her ski serviceman from Europe to the U.S.

“For sure, the Olympics, it’s a target,” she said, not yet knowing how much she can reincorporate speed races into her schedule, “but a bigger target would be able to say not only can I compete at the Olympics, but I can just compete regularly. What I found this season is that it’s taken a little while longer to get my back or body as a whole in ski-specific conditioning shape to not feel sore constantly.”

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