Audibly awesome: Shiffrin wins championship gold |

Audibly awesome: Shiffrin wins championship gold

Mikaela Shiffrin bobs and weaves between the slalom gates Saturday during her championship clinching run at the FIS Alpine World Championships at Beaver Creek. Thousands lined the course and filled the grandstands
Joel Reichenberger

— It’s the noise that defines the greatest sporting events, and at best, a spectator can close his or her eyes and know exactly what happened.

Saturday’s women’s FIS Alpine World Championship slalom offered a feast for the ears, from the clanging bells from the Swiss to chants of “RUU-SEEE-AAAA” from the Russians.

The Americans roared, saluting their day, their race, their course, and, at last, their champion, 19-year old phenom Mikaela Shiffrin.

Shiffrin herself, however, was defined on one of her greatest days, a stunning slalom World Championship on home snow, simply by silence.

Building up

The sound started well before the second and decisive run of Saturday’s slalom — the crowd awoken from its mid-race slumber by an odd collection of stimuli.

There was a cheerleader dance team, pom-poms and all, rocking to Michael Jackson, and soon a blaring audience-assisted version of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, Americans and Swiss and Swedes and Germans and Russians and Czechs and Austrians and Italians all singing together, word for word.

Slalom can be a cruelly enticing sport to spectate, a welcome departure from speed events like downhill or Super G where any particular fan is lucky to see a racer for just a few seconds as they zoom by.

From the grandstands at Red Tail Stadium at Beaver Creek, fans could see the entire course, and it looked easy. It was barely more than 2,000 feet, 60 gates of bobbing and weaving on a modestly steep slope.

So, the fans were able to ride along with every racer.

They cheered each start and when a skier logged a split faster than her opponents, the crowd responded, nudging up their volume.

The format runs the top 30 from the first run in reverse order — each racer starting with a slight advantage on the skier who went before her.

It begs you to believe, and fans bought into every new woman who started strong and seemed poised to take the lead. None had a real chance besides the very fastest, the last of the top 30 racers to go, but it felt like every finish could be the championship moment.

When those dreams crashed for skiers, when she skidded off course as half a dozen of the world’s best did — turns out, it’s not such an easy run — the crowd groaned.

Sounding it out

The day built to a crescendo that those who brought this elite event to Colorado could have only dreamed, never planned.

Shiffrin is amazing like that. She’s the best, a homegrown Eagle-Vail lightning bolt crashing into the skiing world just as other stars began to fade and just as Vail and Beaver Creek poised for their championships close-up.

She didn’t disappoint, leading after the first run by 0.40 seconds.

Her runs were separated by nearly five hours, and she literally took a nap between them. She kicked back in the snow at the top of the hill and a television camera periodically checked in.

“I am half bear,” she said afterward, laughing.

This was deadly serious business for her, however. She’s been able to answer the bell every time the pressure has mounted in her career, winning World Championship gold in the slalom for the first time in 2013, then an Olympic gold medal last year in Russia.

She said she’s afraid of not answering one day, and that motivates her. She doesn’t want to be an example in a psychology book of an athlete who choked in the key moment.

“I’ve been really lucky so far,” she said.

But still, she was nervous as she kicked out of the start gate for her second run, chasing Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter, who had just taken the best time by 0.43 seconds.

The crowd escalated to a frenzy — her start defined by that noise as much as Shiffrin’s skis — but she was slow.

That, too, was obvious with the eyes closed.

When the first split time popped on a video board, her 0.40 advantage was gone and she trailed Hansdotter.

The crowd gasped so loudly it seemed the air had been sucked from the mountain.

She was behind at the second split, too, and the fans gasped again, 0.03 seconds back with half the race to go.

“Everyone said, ‘Wow, you almost killed us down there,’” Shiffrin said afterward.

It was troubling enough that it caused her mother to ask a quivering question an hour after the race.

“What happened?” she said.

Cheering the finish

Everything changed in the bottom of the course.

“I really had to go for everything,” Shiffrin said. “Once I found my rhythm, I had to keep going and going, and it got better and better.”

The final split finally showed Shiffrin in the green again, and the crowd exploded — a jet engine blasting on a snow mountain.

Close the eyes, and it was clear what happened as she flew down the bottom of the course, and as she reached out across the line, grabbing victory.

In fact, the noise said more than the visual.

Shiffrin was silent, gliding through the finish area with barely a smile.

She didn’t pump a fist, didn’t throw her arms and didn’t shed a tear.

“I always think, ‘How cool would it be if I won this and did something so epic that everyone started crying,’” she said. “Then I get to the finish and I’m like, ‘Hi.’ I’ll work on that.”

She didn’t need to do anything.

She finished. She won, and the Americans roared to tell the story.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

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