ARE, Sweden - Mikaela Shiffrin showed that the American ski team can live without Lindsey Vonn, at least for a little while.
In the first World Cup race since Vonn announced a break from the circuit, the 17-year-old Shiffrin picked up the slack quite successfully Thursday — earning her first career victory by winning a night slalom ahead of Swedish home favourite Frida Hansdotter.
Shiffrin has been touted as the next American skiing star and showed why under the floodlights on Are's Olympia course, putting down a perfect second run to finish with a combined time of 1 minute, 45.36 seconds.
"This is huge," Shiffrin said. "I think the best part besides the skiing was the ceremony. It made me cry a little bit when I heard the American anthem."
Shiffrin was second after the first run and was given quite a challenge by overall World Cup leader Tina Maze, who had a blazing second run to take a large lead just before the American was to ski.
But Shiffrin kept her composure in a run that was even faster, setting a time that first-run leader Hansdotter couldn't match.
Hansdotter was still ahead of the American at the first two intermediate times but wasn't as fast in the final section and finished 0.29 seconds behind for second place. Maze was third, 0.52 behind.
"It wasn't two perfect runs but it was two fast runs," said Shiffrin. "Ahead of the second run, I guess I didn't really feel any pressure. It felt more like something was pushing me forward rather than something pulling me towards the finish line."
Erin Mielzynski of Guelph, Ont., was fifth in a time of 1:46.71.
"Fifth is great but when there’s one or two of us on the podium that will be even better," Mielzynski said. "Just seeing how close we are in sections of runs, (the team) can't wait for the day when everything comes together and it’s our day."
Brittany Phelan, of Mont-Tremblant, Que., was 22nd while Marie-Michele Gagnon, of Lac-Etchemin, Que., had the lead in the first section of her first run before going out.
"It's positive to see the green (leader's) light but it’s also very disappointing to have three races of not finishing," Gagnon said. "My skiing is solid. I don’t feel tired – my physical strength is not an issue, it’s more mental. I’m having some focus issues but it’s OK – I will work on it."
Hansdotter said she was happy despite missing out on her first career World Cup win in front of a home crowd.
"It's only joy," Hansdotter said. "Of course, I was in the lead ahead of the second run, but at the same time, crossing the finish line as No. 2 here at home is fantastic."
Vonn, who won her first World Cup race at 19, announced this week she was taking a break from skiing and returning to the U.S. over the holidays to fully recover from an intestinal illness that landed her in hospital last month.
Shiffrin became the youngest women's World Cup winner since Lara Gut of Switzerland won a super-G in St. Moritz in 2008, also at 17. The U.S. Ski Team said she's the second youngest American woman to win a World Cup race behind Judy Nagel, who was three months younger when she won a slalom in Lienz, Austria, in 1969.
Shiffrin already had two podium finishes in slalom, but the impressive victory is likely to create even higher expectations on the teenager. And she's not quite sure she's ready for that.
"I don't really like the success," she said. "I like to sleep at night and I like to hang around the hotel room with my mom. I'm afraid there might be a little hype with this. But I'll take it. This is what I love to do."
Shiffrin now leads the World Cup slalom standings ahead of Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who was 11th Thursday. The American has 196 points, 22 points more than Hoefl-Riesch.
But the teenager said she's not focusing on the Cup standings just yet.
"My only focus is just to ski my best every day. I'll be happy with a world championship medal or a 15th place, as long as I'm skiing my best," she said.
Shiffrin said she plans to celebrate Christmas in Europe with her mother, Eileen, who travels the circuit with her daughter.
"She's my biggest help in the world. She keeps me focused and grounded," Shiffrin said. "I'm sure she'll talk to me in the next couple of days to make sure my head doesn't get too big."
— With files from The Canadian Press.