‘Felt like flying’: Liensberger topples Shiffrin

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Katharina Liensberger held her right arm up in celebration before toppling over in the finish area and lying face down in the snow for a few moments.

The Austrian skier had also just toppled Mikaela Shiffrin.

By triumphing at the world championships on Saturday, Liensberger ended the American’s record streak of four straight slalom titles.

Shiffrin was the first to come over and congratulate Liensberger. She hugged her and then stepped back when she saw a TV cameraman approaching.

This time, the stage belonged to Liensberger.

“It felt like flying a little bit, just getting faster with every gate, all the energy into each turn,” said Liensberger, who was fastest in both runs to beat overall World Cup leader Petra Vlhova of Slovakia by one second.

Shiffrin finished 1.98 behind and had to settle for bronze after capturing the title each time since Austrian Marlies Raich — competing under her maiden name Schild — won it in 2011.

“I once really dreamed that I win a race by one second,” Liensberger said. “But that I could show it at this race makes me incredibly proud and grateful.”

After her triumph in Tuesday’s parallel event, Liensberger became a double world champion but has yet to win on the World Cup circuit.

Did her dominance in the biggest slalom race of the season mark a change of the guard?

The head coach of the Austrian women’s team, Christian Mitter, wasn’t getting carried away.

“It’s a snapshot now, and we take this day now as it is,” Mitter said. “Katharina is probably a little bit more the learned skier, and Mikaela a little bit more the natural skier. But they do the key points the same.”

Liensberger, 23, is a quick learner, according to the coach.

“If you love doing something and you train it the most you can, then you become really good,” he said. “You still need the mental qualities, of course.”

Liensberger certainly showed mental strength.

She had never previously led a top-level slalom race after the first run. When she did Saturday, she dealt with the pressure to perfection.

Liensberger didn’t just defend her first-run lead, she added seven-tenths of a second to it.

It impressed Shiffrin, but it didn’t surprise the American.

“It was just a matter of time for her to win her first slalom race and she picked a good one to do it in,” Shiffrin said.

“She’s skiing so strong and she just seems to have such a good mentality — like a healthy mentality and really motivated, just an amazing competitor.”

After Shiffrin dominated women’s slalom for years, others have started catching up.

First Vlhova. Then Michelle Gisin, who ended the four-year-long winning streak of Shiffrin and Vlhova in World Cup slaloms in December. And now Liensberger.

“She’s leading this sort of next generation of athletes,” Shiffrin said. “She’s going to keep the inspiration going for a while and this one thing that the sport always needs is someone bringing in inspiration. That’s really cool.”

Liensberger’s biggest triumph came 1½ years after her career went off the track. An up-and-coming prospect in the Austrian team, she made a surprise switch from her ski brand Rossignol to another supplier, which led to a dispute with the Austrian ski federation.

Liensberger joined revived Austria-based ski brand Kästle but failed to find a fitting boot supplier as she wasn’t allowed to use ski boots from a manufacturer outside the federation’s supplier pool.

The dispute even led to Liensberger having to sit out the World Cup season-opener in October 2019, but she re-signed with Rossignol the following month.

The move has kick-started her career.

In 11 World Cup slaloms since, Liensberger was never worse than seventh and racked up six podiums, including in all five races this season.

It was fitting that her first win came at the worlds, as her late grandfather, Albert Liensberger, lived in nearby San Lorenzo di Sebato.

The worlds conclude with the men’s slalom on Sunday.

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