Mikaela Shiffrin, after a wave of retirements, ponders her future as World Cup starts

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For so long, Mikaela Shiffrin, a ski racer who makes preparation paramount, has readied for World Cup slaloms and giant slaloms by grabbing a spot in front of a TV in the lodge or team hospitality.

She would watch the broadcast of a men’s World Cup race happening the same day at a different resort. The skier she would most often see winning was Marcel Hirscher, an Austrian who bagged a record eight World Cup overall titles before announcing his retirement on Sept. 4.

“Thirty minutes before I go out for my run, he gives me this inspiration to kind of pull out some athletic skiing and go for it,” said Shiffrin, who like Hirscher starred in the technical events of slalom and GS the last several years. “I’ve had countless races where I remember feeling like, just being able to see him crush it right before I went has given me the last little bit of energy and spark that I kind of needed before I went. I’m definitely going to miss that a lot.”

Shiffrin, if she wasn’t already, is the leading face of her sport following the retirements of Hirscher, Lindsey Vonn and Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal since last winter. She is 24, six years younger than Hirscher. Vonn left at 34; Svindal at 36.

She is the favorite for most races she enters, starting with Saturday’s season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria (4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it until I’m 30, if I’m going to retire before that, if it’s going to be after that,” Shiffrin said. “I probably don’t see myself going well beyond 30, but at the same time, if I’m at that point and I’m still having an absolute blast and sort of still reaching my own standards of skiing, then I’ll keep going.”

That kind of career decision does not appear imminent. Shiffrin is coming off what she called her best season — a record-breaking 17 World Cup wins (in 26 starts), two more world championships gold medals and a third straight World Cup overall title.

This year, if she stays healthy (never a given in her sport), Shiffrin is widely expected to move to No. 3 on the World Cup career wins list (trailing only Vonn and Ingemar Stenmark) and become the first woman to win four straight overall crowns in 45 years.

What could get in her way? For one, the ascension of younger rivals.

Slovakian Petra Vlhova, who beat Shiffrin in consecutive slaloms in 2017, won as many giant slaloms as Shiffrin last season (four, when including the world champs). New Zealand 17-year-old Alice Robinson had the fastest second run in the world championships giant slalom (benefiting from an early start number) and then placed second in the World Cup Finals GS.

“Slalom, [Shiffrin] still holds a little bit of distance there,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said. “But in GS, I don’t think there is any sense of domination.”

Then there is a topic that Shiffrin first broached last season and brought up again this week: back soreness.

“With each year, my body is starting to complain to me,” she said in February, according to The Associated Press. “My back has been kind of nagging all season long. It’s something we’ve had to manage.”

Shiffrin has been fortunate in that in nearly a decade of racing World Cups, she hasn’t had any leg injuries serious enough to require major surgery. But that doesn’t hide the toll of mileage from competing (and, more so, training) at the highest level since she was 15.

“I’ve dealt with some back injuries and probably will maybe for the rest of my career a little bit, but that’s also the case for most ski racers,” she said Monday. “So it’s just a little bit like what’s my body going to allow me to do as well. I know I’m only 24, but at the same time I sort of feel like I’m already 24 [laughs], and I feel it.”

Which brings it back to Shiffrin’s calculated preparation and training. Porino said that what he’s most intrigued about this season is what Shiffrin doesn’t do.

With no Olympics or world championships, there are more than 40 World Cup races between Saturday and the end of the season in March. Shiffrin, even as she has picked up more downhills and super-Gs, has never started more than 30 races combined among the Olympics, world championships and World Cup in one campaign.

Is Shiffrin in for her busiest season of racing yet? Where will she be cautious? If she does limit the race schedule, it might make her even more dangerous, because it frees more time for training.

“You simply do not get better by racing in Alpine skiing,” Porino said. “That has to be intimidating. When she doesn’t show up, she’s getting better than you, and she’s already better than you.”

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