By ERIC WILLEMSEN
SÖLDEN, Austria (AP) — A friendly pat on the back from her rival Petra Vlhova and a long hug from boyfriend Aleksander Aamodt Kilde in the finish area were Mikaela Shiffrin’s rewards for excelling in the season-opening World Cup giant slalom on Saturday.
Shiffrin showed two runs of near flawless skiing on one of the toughest hills on the women’s circuit to earn her 70th career win.
The American Olympic champion’s performance was too much even for Lara Gut-Behrami, the reigning GS world champion from Switzerland.
With 2020 overall men’s champion Kilde looking on, Shiffrin sat .02 behind Gut-Behrami after the opening leg but put in another clean run in the second to edge her Swiss rival by .14 in perfect sunny conditions on the Rettenbach glacier.
“Starting off the season strong is important, so I am super happy,” Shiffrin said. “It’s a pleasure to ski today, they did so amazing with this (course) preparation, it felt so amazing to ski this hill.”
The pair finished well ahead of the rest of the field, with defending overall champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia trailing by 1.30 seconds in third.
Shiffrin became only the third skier in World Cup history to reach the 70-win mark, after Ingemar Stenmark and Lindsey Vonn achieved the feat before they finished their careers on 86 and 82 wins, respectively.
“I guess now it is,” said Shiffrin when asked whether the number of 70 meant something special to her. “It is a great achievement, I am proud. Seventy is incredible but the goal today was to ski well.”
And Shiffrin did just that on Saturday.
She opened race with a clean run, briefly shrugged her shoulders after finishing, but her time easily held up when other pre-race favorites came down.
Only Gut-Behrami, who had an aggressive run in perfect sunny conditions on the Rettenbach glacier, led Shiffrin’s time by a few hundredths throughout her run.
Gut-Behrami had the faster start and was .09 ahead at the first split but lost a fraction of her lead over Shiffrin at each of the following check points.
“It was a really super clean run. I felt really good in my skiing,” Shiffrin said after the first run. “Watching Lara, she is also super on point and maybe a little bit more active, like a little extra something.”
The battle for victory took an intriguing turn in the second leg.
After Shiffrin put pressure on Gut-Bahrami by posting the fastest second-run tun by far, the Swiss skier found herself .10 down at the first check point, but won time on Shiffrin entering the steep middle section, regaining the lead with an advantage of .24.
However, she failed to match Shiffrin on the bottom section.
“It doesn’t really matter, first or second,” Gut-Behrami said. “It’s just good for me to start the season like that, realizing that I am skiing fast.”
The Swiss skier, who won the overall title in 2016, used the summer preparation for “working on confidence, on little things. I am trying to get the best from each run and I am really happy I could bring that back in the race.”
Vlhova said losing 1.30 seconds didn’t hurt her too much.
“I don’t think that I am that far behind them,” the Slovakian skier said. “Today it was like this, but next race it can be completely different.”
Shiffrin’s 13th win in GS came seven years after she won her first race in the discipline at the same venue, sharing the 2014 victory with Austria’s Anna Fenninger.
Several of Shiffrin main challengers had a rough start to their seasons.
Most notably, Italian GS specialists Marta Bassino and Federica Brignone both skied out.
Bassino, who won the race a year ago and dominated the discipline with four wins last season, lost control of her right outside ski halfway through her first run, when she was already .57 behind then-leader Shiffrin.
Brignone was 1.52 behind after the first run in 15th before hooking a gate with her left arm in the second.
Other big names struggled as well, with French standout Tessa Worley finishing 2.06 behind in eighth and New Zealand’s Alice Robinson, who won the season opener in 2019, coming 2.41 seconds off the lead in 11th.
Coming so early in the winter season, the traditional season-opener in October is usually a race where many skiers fail to find their rhythm, seven months after the end of the previous season.
“Sometimes people are not pushing so hard, they just try almost to use it as training, but you really have to attack this hill,” Shiffrin said.
Shiffrin led a strong showing by the U.S. ski team, which had four of their five starters scoring World Cup points, including a career-best ninth place for Nina O’Brien. Also, AJ Hurt placed 20th, and Paula Moltzan finished in 23rd.
Amid tight anti-coronavirus measures, the race was attended by 9,000 spectators.
A minute’s silence prior to the race was dedicated to Gian Franco Kasper, the longstanding FIS president who died in July, just weeks after Johan Eliasch was elected as his successor.
The men’s World Cup starts Sunday with a GS on the same hill.
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