Smiling Shiffrin inspired by US teammates and boyfriend

SÖLDEN, Austria (AP) — One of the most fitting congratulations for Mikaela Shiffrin arrived some five hours after she won the World Cup season opener on Saturday — and it came from another American skiing great.

“Inspiring to see you succeed and more importantly to see you smile. Congrats @MikaelaShiffrin,” her former teammate Lindsey Vonn wrote on Twitter.

Shiffrin was certainly all smiles after winning the giant slalom on an Austrian glacier on a perfect sunny day for her 70th World Cup victory, leaving her 12 wins short of the women’s record held by Vonn, who retired in 2019.

“My goal was to ski well, and with fire,” Shiffrin after the race, in which she fought a tight battle with GS world champion Lara Gut-Behrami.

Shiffrin did ski well. The two-time Olympic champion ultimately edged her Swiss challenger by .14 as the pair left the rest of the field well behind, with defending overall World Cup champion Petra Vlhova a massive 1.30 seconds behind in third.

And Shiffrin did it with fire.

One reason it flared up were her teammates and coaches from the U.S. ski team, who went through an intense two-week preparation prior to Saturday’s race.

“My teammates were skiing really fast, pushing even harder in training than the speed they had today,” Shiffrin said.

“We have just been pushing the limits every day. I never felt like comfortable or satisfied.”

Not just Shiffrin benefited from the joined practice sessions: Four of the five American starters made the flip after the first run and ended up scoring World Cup points.

Nina O’Brien even got a career-best result in GS by finishing ninth, improving three places from her previous best, which came in the last race of last season.

“For me personally, I was really nervous before the first run. It’s definitely a relief to have one race done. I showed some good skiing, all in all I am satisfied,” said O’Brien, who showed her best GS skills at the world championships last February, when she finished runner-up to Shiffrin in the first run.

“It’s really good if I can be there with the top girls,” O’Brien added. “I didn’t quite show it today, but hopefully I can find those good turns and good skiing in the next races.”

AJ Hurt finished 20th, just two spots short of her personal best. Also, Paula Moltzan placed 23rd, after finishing 10th in the season opener a year ago. Only Keely Cashman failed to qualify for the second run.

“They are pushing the pace real high, so I am pushing too. It’s been a really good buildup and a great way to start the season,” Shiffrin said.

“I have to keep raising my level, too … everybody is hungry. I feel that motivation and it is so amazing to have that pace coming from the United States. That’s special.”

Shiffrin said she also gained from the presence of her boyfriend, 2020 men’s overall World Cup champion Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, who was watching on from the finish area.

The Norwegian, who made his relationship with Shiffrin public in an Instagram post last May, talked to Shiffrin between runs and hugged her after the race.

“He is so much fun to talk to about skiing,” Shiffrin said. “I love knowing that he is watching. We are going to talk about it later: what was good, what can I do better?”

The arrival of Kilde has brightened up Shiffrin’s life again, following two difficult years which included the loss of her grandmother in October 2019 and the death of her father less than four months later.

“It’s amazing,” Shiffrin said about her relationship with Kilde. “I always used to think that having a boyfriend would be such a big distraction, but it’s really just so nice.”

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More AP skiing: https://apnews.com/hub/skiing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Eric Willemsen on Twitter: https://twitter.com/eWilmedia

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