AP Sports Writer
With every race, Mikaela Shiffrin draws closer to a couple of things she just can’t stop thinking about: An overall World Cup title. That much-needed vacation in Maui.
No time to imagine the beach, though. Still too much work left to do on snow.
The Olympic slalom champion has a 178-point lead over Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia with six races remaining – all on U.S. slopes. There are two events this week at Squaw Valley in California, before the season concludes next week with the World Cup Finals in Aspen, Colorado.
For most of the season, Shiffrin refused to give her chances at an overall crown much thought.
Lately, the skier from Eagle-Vail embraces the possibility.
“I was worried people would think I am too ambitious, or the overall is too lofty of a goal for me. But obviously it is a very reasonable goal,” Shiffrin wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “I’m not worried what other people think about it anymore.”
This week, she and her fellow racers tackle the Red Dog course at Squaw Valley, which hosts a World Cup event for the first time since 1969. She’s quite familiar with the hill, too, having won a giant slalom title at the 2014 U.S. championships. There’s a GS race Friday, followed a day later by the slalom – her specialty.
Then, it’s off to Aspen for the season finale.
No extra nerves, Shiffrin said, even if it’s close to her hometown. She’s trying to join Phil Mahre, Tamara McKinney, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn as the only Americans to win the overall crown.
“I hope I am able to free my mind and just race, rather than feeling pressure,” Shiffrin said in the email.
When closest rival Lara Gut of Switzerland tore her ACL in February, the overall title appeared inevitable for Shiffrin. But Stuhec has caught fire to close the gap. The remaining schedule favors Shiffrin, though, with four of the six remaining events either slalom or giant slalom. Stuhec has one top-10 World Cup finish this season in the two disciplines, while Shiffrin has 13.
“By the time I get to World Cup Finals, I’m just going to be riding the wave of this winter, excited to be finishing the season in my home country and home state, and happy to share the last racing moments of this season with U.S. fans,” said Shiffrin, who turns 22 on Monday.
As tempting as it may be, Shiffrin resists looking back on a season full of accomplishments, including a 3-for-3 performance during the technical races in Semmering, Austria, and winning her first career World Cup Alpine combined in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
Those are reflections for another time.
“Right now, I find my motivation in the future – a ‘What more can I do?’ sort of thing,” said Shiffrin, who recently tested out the hill for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and said it should be “a blast” to race. “If I start reveling in the past, it would become all too easy to be complacent.”
In between races, Shiffrin’s found time to unwind. One of her favorite moments was simply hanging out in the hotel restaurant with some of the other World Cup racers after a city event in Stockholm.
“I know that sounds odd because I see a lot of them at every race, but we are usually so focused we don’t get many chances to just hang out, so that was pretty fun,” Shiffrin said.
There’s also this: Leaning out a taxi window and waving the American flag as the driver honked the horn going down a crowded street in St. Moritz, Switzerland, after winning her third straight slalom title at world championships.
“At first, I was a bit uncomfortable because I didn’t want to bother everyone in town, but then I realized most of those people came to see the races and the athletes and just want to see us having some fun,” Shiffrin said.
Once the final event is over, Shiffrin plans to head to Hawaii with her family for some relaxation.
“It is so nice when we all are moving at the same speed, in the same place, and get to spend some time together for a little bit – and that is what Maui is for us,” Shiffrin said. “I’m hoping it becomes a routine of sorts.”
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