MERIBEL – Mikaela Shiffrin covered her mouth with her fluorescent orange mittens and then collapsed to the snow, still breathing heavily as her entire body pulsated from the exertion of her gold medal-winning run.
What a relief after a hectic week for the American skier.
Having endured a small protest aimed at her by environmentalists who mistakenly thought she was using a helicopter for training, Shiffrin’s team was thrown into disarray two days before the giant slalom at the world championships when her longtime coach, Mike Day, left suddenly when Shiffrin told him she wanted to change her staff at the end of the season.
“It’s been definitely some high levels of stress these days,” Shiffrin said. “It was very, very difficult today to keep the focus and keep the intensity on the right level.”
Day had coached Shiffrin since 2016 and was with her for 65 of her 85 World Cup wins. Shiffrin needs just one more win to match Ingemar Stenmark's overall record of 86 victories, having already broken Lindsey Vonn's women's mark of 82 wins.
While wins at worlds don't count toward the World Cup totals, that was the last thing on Shiffrin's mind Thursday.
“One thing I really want to say is just, ‘Thank you,’ to Mike for seven years of — I can’t even say helping me — he’s been such an integral part of my team and being there to support me through some of the most incredible moments in my career and some of the most challenging moments of my career and also my life,” Shiffrin said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Shiffrin has now won two straight medals after taking silver in super-G, ending an unfortunate run in major championship races. She didn't finish three of her five individual races at last year's Beijing Olympics and didn't win a medal despite enormous expectations — then also didn't finish her first race at these worlds, when she straddled three gates from the finish of the combined to throw away what would have surely been gold.
Nobody on Shiffrin's personal team, which is also led by her mother, Eileen, who also coaches her, expected Day to react the way that he did.
“It’s just a little bit sad how it came down,” Shiffrin said, adding that she was hoping to give Day “the time and the notice” to figure out his own plans before the end of the season but that his decision to leave immediately was “difficult for all of us to imagine” after “being such a tight group, really a family.”
The entire skiing circuit is like a family, too, with rivals on the slopes often sleeping in the same Alpine chalets and sharing dinners as they travel together all winter on what is known as the “White Circus.”
That tight-knit bond that the skiers feel for each other was evident when Federica Brignone and Ragnhild Mowinckel rushed over to congratulate Shiffrin while she was still lying on the snow, then jumped on top of her.
Brignone finished a mere 0.12 seconds behind Shiffrin to take the silver, adding to the Italian's gold in combined, and Mowinckel of Norway finished 0.22 behind for the bronze.
French skier Tessa Worley, who was second after the opening run, slid on her inside ski and fell in her second run.
"I didn’t want to go for a medal, I wanted to go for the win," said Worley, a two-time giant slalom world champion who had the added pressure of skiing in front of her home fans.
Brignone spent four days at home in bed with a fever before this race and has also been mourning former teammate Elena Fanchini, who died last week of a tumor at age 37.
"It’s also been an emotional time for us,” Brignone said.
Shiffrin won the giant slalom at the 2018 Olympics but this was her first world title in the discipline, making her only the fourth female skier to win world titles in four different disciplines, after previously winning four golds in slalom, one in super-G and the combined gold two years ago.
It raises Shiffrin's tally to seven world titles and 13 medals overall from 16 career world championship races. She's in second place behind German skier Christl Cranz on the all-time list for the most individual medals won by a woman at the worlds. Cranz won 15 medals in the 1930s.
“Coaches are important but Shiffrin is still Shiffrin," said super-G champion Marta Bassino, who finished fifth. "She wasn’t depending (only) on (Day). Let’s not take anything away from him or the other coaches, with all due respect, but look at her.”
Nina O'Brien posted the second-fastest time in the final run and improved from 21st to 11th position, while American teammate Paula Moltzan spun around and missed a gate halfway through her first run and did not finish. Moltzan fractured her hand in Tuesday’s team event, which the U.S. team won. Shiffrin did not compete in that event.
“The hand is as good as it was going to feel so I’m not disappointed with that,” said Moltzan, who had her glove taped to her ski pole during her run. “I think I just misjudged my turn a tiny bit and came inside a bit and couldn’t recover.”
The men's giant slalom is scheduled for Friday then Shiffrin’s last race at worlds is the slalom — her best event — on Saturday.
Willemsen reported from Vienna.
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