SCHLADMING, Austria - Mikaela Shiffrin needs to beat one of her idols if she wants to win the world slalom title.
The American teenager leads the World Cup discipline standings but has never made a secret of her admiration for Austrian standout Marlies Schild, the 2011 world slalom champion who will return for the race Saturday after a two-month break because of knee surgery.
"I'm really excited to have Marlies back racing," Shiffrin said. "She's always been an inspiration to me."
Schild hurt her right knee before the Dec. 20 slalom in Are, Sweden. Shiffrin won that race, her first career victory.
The 17-year-old American followed up with wins in Zagreb, Croatia, and Flachau, Austria, before opening her first world championships by placing a career-best sixth in giant slalom.
"It's my first big event and it's really excited to be here," Shiffrin said. "I'm just trying to take it in, get the experience and also stay focused."
U.S. women's technical coach Roland Pfeifer said Shiffrin "hasn't changed at all" since her three wins to lead the rankings.
"She is still training a lot, she is still doing exactly what we coaches are telling her," Pfeifer said. "She has been under pressure all season and now there is even more pressure. She feels it, but I think she is able to focus on her skiing."
Schild was initially expected to need a three-month recovery period, but resumed ski training a week before the worlds.
The Austrian said she will enter the race with "no expectations" despite being only one win short of Swiss great Vreni Schneider's record of 34 World Cup slalom victories.
"I haven't raced in two months, so it won't be easy," Schild said. "The most important is to be able to start without pain. I feel like I can fully attack. I just don't think about the knee."
Schild missed the 2009 worlds in Val d'Isere, France, because of a broken leg but came back to win her first world title in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
"I have never been to a world championship with less pressure than this time," Schild said. "I will enter this event very relaxed. Everyone knows I am a fighter. If a see a chance, I will grab it."
Shiffrin and Schild will be challenged by Tina Maze of Slovenia, who is on the verge of clinching the overall World Cup title and only trails Shiffrin by 33 points in the slalom standings.
Maze will aim for her fourth medal of the worlds after winning gold in super-G and silvers in super-combined and giant slalom.
"I am happy that Marlies is back and that she will fight for the title," Maze said. "It's good that the favorites race here. That makes racing more exciting, even for me. It makes you want to do even better."