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David Ramsey: Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin engage in polite, highly entertaining Olympic rivalry

February 15, 2018 Updated: February 16, 2018 at 6:05 pm
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So great.

So different.

Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin both blaze down mountains, but the similarities soon slow down.

Vonn is the take-it-to-the-limit competitor who endures vicious pain in pursuit of world domination. In NBC commercials pushing these Winter Olympics, she proudly displays her scars.

In 2013, I talked with Vonn for a few minutes at a media gathering in Park City, Utah. She politely thanked me for asking about the state of her oft-injured right knee.

And she succinctly explained her approach to her sport, and her life.

“I thrive on chaos,” she said.

Shiffrin is a technician who prepares with borderline obsessive attention to detail. She avoids the party life and travels the world under the guidance of her mother/coach.

Shiffrin thrives on control.

Pyeongchang Olympics Alpine Skiing
Mikaela Shiffrin, of the United States, skis during the first run of the women's slalom at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) 

A few days before Shiffrin won slalom gold in the 2014 Sochi Games, she talked with reporters about her philosophy. She was 18, but exuded the wisdom of an ancient woman.

“I like the painful process of realizing you’re not where you want to be yet,” she said. “It’s gotten me to where I am.”

Yes, there’s a rivalry between these two Colorado queens of ski racing, but only kind of. So far it’s been a quiet, respectful competition. One storm threatened, but the cloud quickly passed.

The November issue of Outside magazine featured a cover asking if Shiffrin is (already) the greatest skier ever.

Vonn rapidly responded with a tweet that displayed a long (really long) list of her accomplishments. Shiffrin, just as rapidly, offered tribute to Vonn on Twitter.

“Trust me girl, we all know you da #GOAT and my name isn’t even close to making that list yet,” Shiffrin wrote. (Notice the key word in the sentence: “yet.”)

Jim Page, who lives in Colorado Springs, is watching closely, and with expert eyes. He competed in the 1964 Olympics in Nordic combined competition and coached Dartmouth to the 1976 NCAA team ski title.

“Shiffrin has worked and worked," Page said. "She’s just a better skier than any of the other women on the circuit. From a technical point of view, she’s just able to do it better than anybody else. She’s figured out every variable.

“What I admire about Vonn is her tenacity, her almost ferocious commitment to going fast and winning. She’s a great skier, but I think she’s an even better competitor.”

Vonn, 33, has 80 World Cup victories despite an array of career-threatening injuries. Shiffrin, 22, has been blessedly, and remarkably, free of injury, but as she pursues Vonn-like greatness and longevity she must prove she can triumph while burdened with a battered body.  (Shiffrin endured rare adversity Thursday night when she failed to medal in the slalom.)

“Lindsey is OK with the possibility of being injured again,” Page said. “Her willingness to keep going is really kind of amazing.”

Billy Kidd laughed over the phone from his home in Steamboat Springs as he considered Vonn’s inspiring endurance. Kidd is an American pioneer. He won silver in the slalom (Shiffrin’s specialty) at the 1964 Games. He and Jimmy Heuga, who won bronze in the same race, were the first American men to medal in Alpine skiing.

“I love Lindsey because she’s tougher than most NFL players,” Kidd said. “And I love her because when the pressure is the greatest, she’s at her best.”

Kidd was quick to say he also admires Shiffrin. She’s learned, he said, to handle the vicious pressure that arrives seconds before an ultra-fast run down the side of a mountain. A skier must be daring and precise. A skier must flirt with recklessness while remaining under utter control.

“If you fall down, they don’t give you a medal,” Kidd said. “So much of skiing at this level is in your head. At lesser levels, it’s how tall you are, how much you weigh, how much skill you have.

“At the Olympics, it’s about focus and determination and never giving up. That’s why Lindsey and Mikaela are the best in the world.”

They share greatness, even if they don’t share much else.

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