VAIL - At an age when most junior ski racers would be happy to get an autograph from the world's best, Mikaela Shiffrin is beating them. Yet she is dazzled to be in their presence even when she shares the podium with her heroes.
When the 17-year-old phenom from Eagle-Vail finished third in the first World Cup slalom of the season nine days ago in Levi, Finland, it was her second podium in just 12 World Cup slalom starts. She got her first in Lienz, Austria, in her third start last December when she was 16.
"Pretty much every girl on the World Cup circuit is a hero of mine in one way or another," Shiffrin said last week with typical wide-eyed innocence. "It's so surreal, competing with them. I can't believe it. I see them and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm such a big fan.' And then I'm like, 'Well, I'm also on the podium with you. But I'm still such a big fan.' It's just the coolest feeling. It's really indescribable."
What Shiffrin has accomplished just two races into her second season on the World Cup is remarkable. Consider that the best American ski racers her age typically are racing on the developmental Nor-Am circuit, still dreaming of making the World Cup. And that the world's best female slalom racer - Marlies Schild of Austria - was 21 years old when she captured her first podium in her 10th race. Schild got her second in her 16th race.
Consider, too, that four-time World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn was 19 - in her third full World Cup season - when she captured her first podium.
Shiffrin is special.
"It's hard to wrap my mind around it," Shiffrin said. "I still haven't even grasped that I got a podium last year in Lienz. I've always just tried to work toward my best skiing and my fastest skiing, so I never had expectations for Lienz and Levi. I wasn't expecting anything, I was just trying to go out there and fly down the course. When I do that, I remember that I don't have expectations, and it's just so fun to compete."
Shiffrin's mother, Eileen, followed the U.S. Ski Team around Europe last winter for her daughter. Mikaela traveled with the team, but Mom was nearby when Mikaela needed some love, not to mention helping with laundry and homework.
"I think it was a really good thing that I was over there for her," Eileen said. "It was a little bit stressful, with the newness of the World Cup scene, all the new venues, but in general I think it went as good as it could have gone."
Mikaela doesn't have a driver's license. She does homework via e-mail. But put her on a stage in front of a crowd, with a microphone in her hand, and she sparkles with personality. She was the star of a ski team event in Vail last week that drew hundreds of fans.
"In a lot of ways, she is old for her age," Eileen said. "But in a lot of ways, she's been pretty sheltered and is a little bit young for her age - not precocious and super streetwise. That's one of the reasons she wants me with her. She just feels like when I'm with her, she can relax. She knows I'm going to look after her unconditionally, I'm hopefully not going to let anything bad happen to her, and if we stumble into a bad situation together, then we'll find our way out of it."
They had some tense moments one night in Austria. Thinking it would be fun to go watch the classic men's night slalom in Schladming - a raucous affair that always draws massive crowds on a Tuesday night in January - their GPS got them lost on a tiny mountain road in avalanche territory.
"It looked really dicey, and I kept saying, 'Mikaela, I don't think this is the right way, but it keeps telling us to go this way,' " Eileen said. "Finally we backed our way out, we used our common sense and found our way to the right place."
After beginning her 2011-12 season in Aspen, Shiffrin's World Cup schedule would take her to France, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Andorra, Germany and Sweden, plus world junior championship races in Italy.
Mom was there whenever she needed her.
"I'm always dying to see her," Mikaela said. "We joke around a lot, we watch TV shows together, we do homework together. I would spend time with the team, but in my free time I'd be like, 'Come on, Mom, let's hang out.'"
Shiffrin says she sets performance goals but resists putting expectations on herself.
"Like in Lienz, my goal was to get on the podium, but my expectation was just to get my fastest skiing out there," she said. "When I think about, 'I need to get a podium,' or, 'I need to win,' or, 'I'm in third place after the first run, what happens if I don't do it second run,' then it gets in my head. If I'm just thinking about, 'Man, this is so fun, let's make this run really count,' it's great. The goals are there, but I don't really think about them on race day. I think about them in training to help me get to where I need to go."
Roland Pfeifer, U.S. Ski Team women's technical coach, says Shiffrin is an exceptionally hard worker.
"Unbelievable passion," Pfeifer said. "Every single day, she tries to improve. Whatever you tell her, she thinks about it and then she tries to do it. And if anybody says she is gifted, that it's kind of innate, I have to say no, it's because she is working way harder than other athletes. She has the right size, she's a strong girl. But other girls her age have pretty much the same, but the way Mikaela is working, that's a big difference."
Shiffrin's passion for the sport is as obvious as her sense of wonder that she is succeeding at it so early.
"I just want to go fast," Shiffrin said. "Winning requires going fast, and I just want to go fast in the first place. I love seeing how fast I can get to the next gate and get to the finish line. It's just a great feeling when you're in that zone. It's like you're flying, or dancing."