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Mikaela Shiffrin skis through sickness for 'sweetest' win of career at world championships

AP

Mikaela Shiffrin couldn’t breathe. She felt like she was suffocating. She had no energy, and self-doubt had set in.

Then came some words of encouragement from her coaches: “The reality is you have to push for 60 seconds. Everything else doesn’t matter. Just 60 seconds.”

They were the sweetest 60 seconds of her career.

Fighting off a lung infection, Shiffrin delivered her most resilient performance yet to capture the slalom title at the world championships and become the first Alpine skier — male or female — to win the same event at four straight worlds.

The drama added another layer of legend around a 23-year-old American who is on course to be the greatest skier of all time.

“I was just not feeling very good for the whole day,” she said, her voice noticeably croaky, “except for the 60 seconds that it mattered.”

After crossing the line, she collapsed to the snow for a while. She roused herself to get up only because she thought she was being disrespectful to the two skiers yet to come down.

First it was Anna Swenn Larsson, who finished 0.58 seconds behind Shiffrin to take silver. Then came first-run leader Wendy Holdener, who went round a few gates before going off the course.

Just like that, it was official: Shiffrin was a world champion for the fifth time — and the second time at these championships after winning the super-G on the opening day of competition in Are.

She barely had any energy to celebrate.

“A testament to her grittiness,” Shiffrin’s coach, Jeff Lackie, told The Associated Press, “and what she was able to accomplish in that second run was nothing short of incredible.”

This was the kind of situation that Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin’s idol, used to revel in: Battling adversity, proving the critics wrong, coming from behind.

Now Vonn is retired, Shiffrin is center stage — the poster girl of Alpine skiing whether she likes it or not.

This is some way to kick off the post-Vonn era.

Shiffrin woke up on Saturday with a terrible cold, feeling sick, and with trouble just breathing. Rumors started to swirl about her feeling under the weather, and they were confirmed after the first run of the slalom in which she finished in third place — 0.15 seconds behind Holdener.

Shiffrin was suffering with a chest cold, her team said, and her energy levels were low. She watched her rivals — Holdener, Swenn Larsson, eventual bronze-medalist Petra Vlhova — in the first run and thought: “I don’t know how much more I have to give, how much more I can push.”

She said her illness might have taken away any nerves before the second leg, which — hours after the race — was just a blur to her. The most vivid memory she had was from halfway down the course, when she felt she “ran out of oxygen.”

In fact, despite everything, the second run was close to perfection. It was the fastest by 0.62 seconds.

“Technically,” said Livio Magoni, Vlhova’s coach, “it’s worth watching over and over again to learn from.”

Tears flowed from Shiffrin after Swenn Larsson came down the hill to win Sweden its first medal of these championships. She cried at the flower ceremony, and again in media interviews afterward.

“I’m not sure why I was crying quite a lot more than I usually do, and it’s quite embarrassing,” Shiffrin said. “But it is emotional for a lot of reasons. I can’t explain every reason right now. It would take much too long.”

It’s most likely down to the pressure she has been under, externally and from within, in a roller-coaster two weeks in central Sweden. First there was the high of the super-G gold, then her exchanges on social media in response to comments from Vonn and Bode Miller questioning her decision to skip the Alpine combined in favor of going to nearby Norway for training.

There was the relative disappointment of finishing third in the giant slalom — Shiffrin said it was an awesome result, even though she started out as favorite — and then this drama-filled day in the slalom.

In the end, she walks away from the championships tied with Ted Ligety as the American with the most gold medals at the worlds. In doing so, she moved ahead of Miller, another of her childhood idols.

With seven medals at the worlds, she is only one off the American record held by Vonn. Shiffrin has seven gold medals at the worlds and Olympics, and is up to 56 victories on the World Cup circuit — 26 behind Vonn and 30 off the all-time record of Ingemar Stenmark.

A reminder that Shiffrin is only 23, not yet considered at her peak .

After accepting a cough sweet to soothe her throat, Shiffrin was asked what made the unprecedented win in the slalom so memorable.

“In the moments that it counted, my team and I were able to focus on the true task and the reason we’re here,” she said. “That’s something special.”