Mikaela Shiffrin, racing for the first time since January, settled for second place behind Petra Vlhova in a World Cup slalom on Saturday but still “felt a lot of happiness” to finally get back in the start gate.
“I enjoy a second place more than I did ever before,” said Shiffrin, a winner of 66 World Cup races, “because I felt I was pushing and having some good skiing. It was the best I could today. I feel I can be more proud of that than I used to be.”
Vlhova, the World Cup slalom champion from Slovakia, posted the fastest times in both runs to beat the American by 0.18 seconds in Finnish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle.
But for Shiffrin, the result wasn't her biggest concern.
“It’s been really hard to imagine being here again and racing. And being on the podium, that’s just something I almost didn’t dare to really imagine, because you don’t want to be disappointed again,” the double Olympic and three-time overall champion said.
Shiffrin's previous season ended prematurely after the death of her father, Jeff Shiffrin. That was followed by the cancellation of the season-ending races amid the coronavirus outbreak, and then she sat out the first race of the new season in Austria in October with a back injury.
The 25-year-old Shiffrin had wondered whether she wanted to continue her ski racing career, but after Saturday's race she sounded optimistic.
"I hope from here I can keep going because I want to,” she said. "I felt a lot of happiness skiing today, and racing. I had fun and I felt I did some really good skiing. After everything that has happened, it is really cool to just be able to ski race and get a podium, and get a second place, that’s like, wow!”
Racing the second run on a course set by her coach Livio Magoni, Vlhova earned her fourth straight slalom win.
“I tried to take this advantage that my coach set the course, and I did it,” Vlhova said. “It wasn’t easy, as it started snowing and also the course was a bit destroyed. But I did it and I am really happy. First victory in the first slalom of the season is always good."
Austria’s Katharina Liensberger was 0.57 behind in third, while the rest of the field, led by Swiss racer Wendy Holdener, was at least 1.35 off the lead.
Wearing bib No. 1, Shiffrin had opened the race with an error-free run.
Vlhova trailed Shiffrin by 0.13 at the first split but was ahead of the American at all following check points before finishing 0.15 ahead.
In the final run, Vlhova initially extended her lead to 0.52 but lost over three tenths as she failed to match Shiffrin’s pace in the flat finish section.
“In the second run you start last and want to confirm you first run. That's pressure. It was not a perfect run because I did some mistakes. But at the end it was green,” said Vlhova, referring to the color in which leading times are displayed on a video-wall in the finish area.
In a streak that started in January 2017, the last 27 World Cup slaloms have all been won by either Shiffrin, with 19 wins, or Vlhova.
Vlhova won the season-long slalom title last year, edging Shiffrin by 20 points, after the American had won it six times in the previous seven seasons.
The pair continued their dominance in Saturday’s race.
“Nothing’s changed, but also everything’s changed,” Shiffrin said. “But it’s really fun to be here, to see everybody skiing. It’s fun to watch and for me it was fun to do.”
Federica Brignone, who ended Shiffrin’s three-year reign as overall champion last season, was 1.61 behind after the opening run but failed to finish her second and didn't score World Cup points.
Italian teammate Marta Bassino, who won the season-opener last month, finished more than three seconds behind in 18th.
Slalom specialist Anna Swenn Larsson missed the race as the entire Swedish team quarantined after a COVID-19 test for one of its coaches came back positive.
A limited number of spectators were allowed at the race.
Another women’s slalom is scheduled for Sunday.