The future of the U.S. alpine team arrived ceremoniously in Zagreb, Croatia, last week at an event where they crown and cape the Snow Queen.
Mikaela Shiffrin, 17, won the World Cup slalom under the lights and in front of 10,000 fans (including Alberto Tomba) by an historic 1.19 seconds, the largest margin of victory in a slalom event in 367 days.
"I was in the zone where you feel like you're skiing well and you almost feel unstoppable," Shiffrin, who celebrated with a shoulder shimmy and dance, said in a U.S. Ski Team release.
With the victory, Shiffrin became the first American to win two World Cup races before turning 18. She also grabbed the World Cup slalom standings lead, and passed the sidelined Lindsey Vonn in the overall standings, too. Vonn, out since mid-December with lingering health issues, planned to return for a downhill and super-G in Austria this weekend.
"[Shiffrin's] more mature physically than teammate Resi Stiegler, who is 27," wrote Ted Ligety, the best U.S. men's slalom skier, in a diary for the Denver Post titled, "Mikaela Shiffrin is crazy good for a 17-year-old."
The headlines are well deserved. Shiffrin earned them, and the Snow Queen glass crown (that broke in transit), with precise carving that may not be as eye-catching as Vonn's unmatched speed or Bode Miller's patented risk (their skiing styles are apples, oranges and M&Ms). But it's just as impressive. Perhaps more, considering at this age Miller wasn't skiing World Cups, and Vonn was barely able to cross the finish line.
"It is not too early to call her the next phenom of U.S. skiing," Universal Sports' Steve Porino said after calling the first of Shiffrin's two runs, where she was three tenths faster than the field.
Shiffrin is World Cup royalty, her name known in mountainous pockets of the U.S. and Europe with coming opportunities for her fame to spread. Next month, the world championships. Next year, the Olympics.
"I think that hopefully this win brings a lot of excitement to ski racing in the U.S.," said Shiffrin, who has some 4,000 Twitter followers (Vonn has 157,000; Miller 12,000) and follows Taylor Swift and The Hunger Games. "It's not going to change anything for me. There will be more interest from the sponsors maybe and media, but I'm still going to be doing the same thing."
Think Missy Franklin on snow, except Shiffrin can accept prize money. The Vail, Colo., native won $55,000 in Zagreb, and her sponsors include Barilla and Oakley. What Franklin, Vonn and Miller have that Shiffrin does not (yet) is versatility. Shiffrin's best finish in a non-slalom World Cup race is eighth. So her Olympic buzz is definitively different, just like her skills. The opening ceremony is Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, and the women's slalom is not until two weeks after the flame is lit, the next-to-last alpine event of the Games. The wait will be interesting.
Kim Yu-na officially qualified for the world championships, not that there was any doubt. The reigning Olympic champion won the South Korean nationals on Sunday, which was just her second competition after almost two years off. Kim fell in her short program but still posted a higher total score (210.77 points) than in her first outing back in December (201.61).
The Korea Skating Union charged admission to its national championships for the first time (not coincidentally, it was Kim's first appearance there as a senior), and all 4,800 tickets were snatched within minutes of going on sale, according to Yonhap News.
She's certainly not at her world-record best from the Vancouver Games (228.56), but Kim, 22, and her "Les Miserables" free skate should be favored for gold at worlds in London, Ontario, come March.
Kim's comeback complicates matters for U.S. Figure Skating. The U.S. women need their best results at the world championships in six years to qualify the maximum quota (three) into the 2014 Olympics. The magic number is 13 -- if the two U.S. women at worlds place no worse than a combined 13th (so, first place and 12th place or sixth and seventh would suffice), three get to go to Sochi. Any worse, and it's just two.
In Californian Ashley Wagner, the U.S. boasts its greatest leading lady since 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen. A world medal favorite, Wagner is likely to win her second straight national title later this month in Omaha (nobody has repeated since Michelle Kwan won eight straight up to 2005). The problem is finding a second, supporting skater. There might not be another American who can place in the top 10 at worlds. Kim's return makes it that much harder to hit that magic number of 13.
Americans Katie Uhlaender and Noelle Pikus-Pace won silver and bronze medals, respectively, at the first World Cup skeleton event of 2013 in a rainy Altenberg, Germany. Uhlaender's silver, after a gold at the last World Cup of 2012, moved her into fourth place in the overall standings with three events to go. She was .01 shy of winner Marion Thees of Germany.
Pikus-Pace, back from retirement and two pregnancies after the 2010 Olympics, has two bronzes to show from just three World Cup starts out of six events this season. The world championships are slated for Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where both Uhlaender and Pikus-Pace could medal like they did in 2007 at the same track.
The sport that pairs cross-country skiing and ski jumping was an American revelation at the 2010 Olympics. The U.S. won four medals, its first in Nordic combined, which has been part of the Winter Games program since 1924.
The succeeding three years have not been as productive. Americans won two total medals in 51 World Cup events between the Olympics and last weekend. But the U.S. had its most promising day since the Vancouver Games on Saturday, winning its first-ever medal in a World Cup team event, a bronze in Schonach, Germany.
Olympic medalists Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick and brothers Bryan and Taylor Fletcher came from behind in the cross-country portion for third place. They did it without three-time 2010 Olympic medalist Johnny Spillane, who has reportedly been battling illness this season.
Lodwick, 36, could become the first American to make six Winter Olympic teams come next year.
Olympians Dylan Ferguson and Emily Cook both placed fifth at the aerials World Cup opener in Changchun, China, over the weekend. Ferguson, fourth in last year's overall standings, has taken over from the late Jeret "Speedy" Peterson and the inactive Ryan St. Onge as the best U.S. male aerialist. Cook is the class of the women with Ashley Caldwell, 14 years Cook's junior, out after tearing her left ACL 363 days after tearing her right ACL.