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Mikaela Shiffrin opens World Cup season with nerves settling, history calling

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Mikaela Shiffrin knows that last season was incredibly successful — Olympic gold and silver medals, a repeat World Cup overall title and fifth slalom globe with a personal-best 12 wins on the circuit.

She also knows that most friends and family asked about something else — her fourth-place finish in the PyeongChang Olympic slalom.

“They say, what happened in the slalom?” she said in a preseason interview with Austrian TV. “And there’s not really one answer. And a lot of the answers I have will just sound like I’m complaining or that they’re excuses. So I don’t like to talk about it too much because I like to focus more on the incredible success that I did have in the giant slalom and the super combined as well, but for sure the slalom was a disappointing thing for me. To be so close to a medal, coming in fourth place, it’s kind of like a little burn.”

Shiffrin begins the post-Olympic season with the traditional opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday.

MORE: Alpine skiing TV/stream schedule

Four years ago, she began the PyeongChang Olympic cycle with her first win in a discipline other than slalom in Soelden (a tie with Anna Veith). She would end the quadrennial with two medals in South Korea in events other than slalom.

In between, Shiffrin suffered the first significant injury of her career, began racing speed events (even won a downhill) and spoke about nerves that caused her to throw up before races (including the PyeongChang slalom).

She began Skyping and texting a sports psychologist, who suggested writing the words “I am” on her lime-green gloves. Shiffrin had read the poem “Invictus.” I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

“I’m more excited for this season, going into Soelden, than I have been in the past,” she said last week. “The last couple of years, I felt a little bit like someone has a choke hold on my neck, and the closer we get to the race, the more I feel like they’re choking me. This year, I feel a lot more comfortable with my skiing or just kind of comfortable with this whole process.”

This season, Shiffrin can join the farewelling Lindsey Vonn as the only women to win three straight World Cup overall titles in the last 25 years.

She can pass childhood idol Marlies Schild of Austria for the World Cup slalom wins record — Shiffrin has 32 (plus three parallel slalom wins that don’t count for this stat); the retired Schild 35.

She is favored to tick off both boxes. But Shiffrin only speaks about the numbers when they’re brought up by reporters.

“To be honest, I don’t know how many slalom wins that I have now,” she told Austrian TV. “It’s something in the 30s, I guess, and I have a total of 40-something wins. I don’t really count, so I don’t really know where I am in terms of those records. For me, it’s the best way to think about it because if I start thinking about those records, it’s going to be too much pressure.”

The goals this season include the usuals. A priority on defending the slalom title. Striving for a first giant slalom season title. Dabbling in speed races as she bids for another overall globe. (Shiffrin did something out of character this offseason, spending vacation time in Martinique with a top GS rival, Frenchwoman Tessa Worley, while on a trip with her boyfriend, French racer Mathieu Faivre, and other members of that nation’s team.)

Shiffrin also voiced a new goal, long-term, that would put her in exclusive company.

“Some day I will be able to have wins in every discipline,” Shiffrin said (she has them all except super-G), “and hopefully I will be able to win in every event in one season.”

Not even Vonn has done the latter. Shiffrin would be the fourth after Petra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze. Now that would really get the friends and family talking.

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MORE: Vonn explains why it’s her final season

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.