It would be another perfect Colorado day for the final ladies’ event at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships in Beaver Creek. Reigning World and Olympic Champion Mikaela Schiffrin of the U.S. Ski Team was wearing bib number 2, while Lithuania’s Ieva Januškevičiūtė would start with bib number 88.
Ieva with former U.S. Ski Team racer Sarah Schleper of Vail, now racing for Mexico. Schleper did not finish the first run. © Jennifer Virskus

The sun hadn’t yet risen when the 120 women in the race arrived at the start for inspection. The snow of the 61-gate course was fully-injected, making for a firm but grippy surface. One by one, the women pushed out of the start house and made their way down the course, looking for rhythm changes and other particularly difficult sections.

Januškevičiūtė inspected the course together with her coaches from Kronplatz Racing Team in Italy Nicola Paulon and Stefano Lombardi, as well as her Kronplatz teammates Nino Tsiklauri from Georgia and Maya Harrisson from Brazil.

After inspection, the girls went for a few runs on the warm-up course where Januškevičiūtė got a bit of a surprise: “I was in the training course when I lost my balance and I jumped a little bit and my ski went on my pole. They’re carbon and they’re so slim, so my ski broke the pole,” she said.

Paulon saw the accident and immediately found a Swiss coach who had the number of the Komperdell rep, her sponsor for ski poles and protective gear, in Beaver Creek who managed to find her another set. “The new poles are five centimeters longer than my usual ones but it was perfectly fine.”

This setback right before the start could have really affected some skiers psychologically, but for Januškevičiūtė, it wasn’t a problem. “Actually, when I broke my pole, I started to laugh, like ‘What else can go wrong this morning!’”

Schiffrin, presumably without a ski pole mishap, came down the course with a smoking first run time of 50.07, 0.85 seconds ahead Slovenija’s Tina Maze. “I felt good at the start, a little bit jittery. It’s so nice to be out here. Happy Valentine’s day!” said the 19-year-old.

Another American skier, Hailey Duke, who races independently of the U.S. Ski Team finished 38. In order to compete, the 30-year-old Duke has to raise $150,000 per year on her own. “It’s probably one of the hardest things, to stand there at a grocery store and ask people if they want to support your dream,” she said. “The more ‘No’s’ I hear, the tougher I get with it, but I also hear another ‘Yes’ with every two ‘No’s.’” Her advice to the other racers at the start who pay for their own programs? “Just go out there and give it hell, you’re never doing too much.”

Starting with bib number 76, Tsiklauri was the 60th skier to qualify for the second run. “It’s the first World Championships slalom race that I qualified. I will try to give my best in the second run. Hopefully it will work out and I’ll get a nice result, and of course have fun,” she said.

Despite the broken pole, Januškevičiūtė laid down a solid run landing in 71st, her best slalom result in World Championship competition. “I wish I had pushed a little bit more. Just a little bit,” she said smiling. “The course was pretty well-kept. On the chairlift, I was talking to Marie Michele-Gagnon and she told me ‘It’s so nice, I think it’s going to keep for you,’ and she was right. It was just a little bit turny. I’m happy with my run.”

Januškevičiūtė skied into the finish to the delight of the spectators, and one in particular: There was a Lithuanian girl who now lives in Colorado who had come to watch the event and was flying the Lithuanian flag. Januškevičiūtė did not get to meet her in person, but she said, “It really means a lot to me to know that she was here. Most of the fans are the people I know, and to have somebody that I don’t know come to see me, it’s really special.”

While she didn’t make it into the second run, Januškevičiūtė says she will take away a lot of confidence from this race. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the season!”

The stadium was at absolute capacity to see if Schiffrin would deliver the gold in the second run. With the top 30 first run finishers starting the second run in reverse order, Schiffrin pushed out of the gate with a huge lead, which had disappeared by the second split. She was still behind at the third split, but by the final pitch, she had found another gear, straightened out her line, and crossed the finish line 0.34 seconds faster than Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter.

“At the beginning of my run, I knew I was attacking, but it was a little bit of a conservative line,” said Shiffrin after her win. “I knew I had to charge down here and try to use the groove a little bit … I’m glad to walk away with this one and do it at home in the last 10 gates.’”

Shiffrin is now the back-to-back slalom World Champion, and the first slalom World Champion to win on home snow since Italian Deborah Compagnoni won gold in Sestrières, Italy in 1997.

The podium was rounded out with Sarka Strachova from the Czech Republic taking home the bronze. Slovakia’s Veronica Velez Zuzulova skied the fastest second run of the day to move from 10th after the first run into 4th overall.

Latvija’s Agnese Aboltina was the only Baltic racer in the second run, finishing 43rd. “It was really amazing. I was so happy that I qualified after the first run, and I finished with a quite okay result for me. It’s my first qualification.”

Januškevičiūtė will now return home to Vilnius for a few days of rest before flying to Norway with Lithuanian teammate Rokas Zaveckas for World Junior Championships in Kvitfjell.

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