Grateful Mikaela Shiffrin returns to World Cup, 300 days since last race

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Mikaela Shiffrin‘s goal for her first World Cup ski races in 300 days remains, in essence, the same as it would have been back in March: to make some good turns.

“Ideally, make every turn a good turn,” she said, “and hopefully it’s fast.”

On Saturday and Sunday, Shiffrin competes for the first time since Jan. 26.

The second runs of World Cup slaloms in Levi, Finland, air live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 6:45 a.m. ET both days. The first and second runs of each slalom also stream live on Peacock Premium (available here).

Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic champion and three-time World Cup overall champion, ends the longest break between races of her career.

She notched World Cup win No. 66 on Jan. 26. A week later, her father, Jeff, died unexpectedly after an accident at home at age 65. That came less than four months after the death of her maternal grandmother.

Shiffrin flew back to Colorado and did not return to the World Cup in Europe until March. She was set to ski the final races of the season in Sweden, but they were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020-21 World Cup season began last month with a giant slalom and without Shiffrin, sidelined by a back injury that she has had to manage for years and, perhaps, for the rest of her career.

She’s trained slalom — and no other disciplines — for the last two weeks, arriving in Europe on Monday. She is excited to race, going so far as to call it “like going on a vacation” after the last 10 months.

She’s still emotionally exhausted, in part from taking on more of the business side of her career that her dad handled, and expects to be for a while. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever heal.

Shiffrin does know that she can still ski fast.

“My eye would tell me that her skiing is in a fairly good spot,” said coach Mike Day, part of her team since 2016. “This can really be looked at, to a certain extent, as a return from injury. Just a different one. Obviously the back [injury] is one piece of it, but everything else that she and her family have had to deal with in the past year has been heavy, has been massive. Those are the bigger unknowns, but, ultimately, she’s a champion and has proven time and again that she has great instincts for competition.”

The last time Shiffrin raced her trademark discipline, back in January, she was beaten in back-to-back World Cup slaloms for the first time since 2017.

“Petra was quite far ahead,” Shiffrin said Thursday of Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova, who won both of those slaloms and then the last one of the season in February. “I haven’t gotten a comparison against any of the other athletes who are here [in Levi] for over 300 days in slalom, so I really don’t know.”

Shiffrin’s plan for the next four months is similar to recent seasons. She will not enter every race. A final decision hasn’t been made on next week’s parallel event in Austria, but Day said it’s unlikely as of Thursday.

She’s had few days on giant slalom skis since mid-summer and none on downhill or super-G skis since January.

The pandemic is impacting daily life, from navigating travel limitations to making sure to hit the local grocery store in Levi during a one-hour window.

“In every way, it’s a different season than any other that we’ve experienced together,” Day said. “We don’t have the luxury of going home like the rest of the tour [skiers who are from European countries], so we’re constantly in hotels or apartments, if we’re lucky enough to find an apartment. It’s dramatic. Those are the little things.”

The World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, is “quite a bit less in my thoughts than it has been in years past,” Shiffrin said.

She poured more time into what would have been unforeseen a year ago, such as the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund. Nearly $3 million has been raised to aid U.S. skiers and snowboarders’ Olympic dreams amid the pandemic. She called hearing other athletes’ stories of resilience therapeutic and unifying.

“The name of the game right now, and this year in general, is gratitude,” Shiffrin said. “And for the rest of my life, I hope, that remains the name of the game.”

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”