Mikaela Shiffrin, Tina Maze facing off for World Cup slalom title
LENZERHEIDE, Switzerland (AP) -- Mikaela Shiffrin is ready online and ready on the slopes.
The American teenager takes another step Saturday in her remarkable season - a showdown with Tina Maze for the World Cup slalom title.
Shiffrin won the slalom gold medal at the world championships last month. Her Slovenian rival is having perhaps the greatest season in 47 years of World Cup racing. Maze marginally leads the slalom standings, but Shiffrin will take home the crystal trophy if she delivers a fourth World Cup victory.
Shiffrin set the stage with a Twitter message. On Monday, two days before her 18th birthday, she wrote: "Tina Maze, I challenge you to a slalom battle of the ages. Lets dance ;)"
When Shiffrin was last in the U.S. almost four months ago, she was flying under the radar of American sports. Then her career took off Dec. 20 in Are, Sweden with her first World Cup victory.
Now, as a world champion with star status in Alpine skiing's European heartland, the soon-to-be high school graduate will start the 2014 Olympics season as an expected medal contender.
Shiffrin acknowledges setting a "lofty" goal last year to become World Cup slalom champion.
"Now I'm in this position where I really have a chance. I've been managed so well this season to be at this point," she told The Associated Press on Friday.
Shiffrin has great admiration for Maze, whose 10 World Cup wins include each speed and technical discipline.
"Her season has been really inspiring to me so I have her to thank for a lot for the energy I have gotten," Shiffrin said. "Seeing her win so much makes me want to win more."
That challenge on Twitter revealed a respect that Shiffrin believes is shared.
"She's always been very supportive and a great competitor and so that tweet was like, `Come on, bring it on' because she's going to, that's the way she is," Shiffrin said. "I'm almost honored to be in the position where if I lose the slalom globe it goes to her."
They are separated by just seven points. Whoever wins their personal duel will take the title unless both finish outside the top five.
The potential for a dramatic finale almost demands it be decided around high noon Swiss time when the first-run leaders come down a second time.
"I mostly just want to feel in the finish like I skied the fastest I can," Shiffrin said. "That's just such an amazing feeling and I get it a lot in training but I haven't gotten it in a race yet this season. I ski best when I'm loose and fired up and ready to race."
Her U.S. team coach, Roland Pfeifer, believes whatever she achieves is a bonus after the gold medal.
"She has won the biggest race of the year in Schladming. She's feeling very comfortable," Pfeifer told the AP on Friday.
Shiffrin trained this week - and celebrated her birthday with her parents, Jeff and Eileen - at Pfeifer's hometown of Schruns, Austria.
"The hotel put on this really big nice birthday party," she said. "They got a band to come and play, and I didn't know any of this was happening. They brought in a cake for breakfast, a cake for lunch and a bigger cake for dinner. I had a great week."
The momentum kept rolling on Friday when Shiffrin collected a sponsor's check for $21,300 as the rising star of the women's World Cup circuit. Her season prize money is several times that sum.
Shiffrin's week can peak Saturday. Then there's a season-ending giant slalom Sunday before the flight home.
"I cannot wait," she said, anticipating home comforts again. "Just to enter the U.S. Even at customs, I'm going to kiss the floor at customs. I just can't wait to get back there."