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Schild captures season-opening slalom race

Tina Maze, from Slovenia, competes at the women's World Cup slalom ski competition in Aspen, Colo., on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. Tina Maze, from Slovenia, competes at the women's World Cup slalom ski competition in Aspen, Colo., on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. (AP Photo/Nathan Bilow)
By Pat Graham
AP Sports Writer / November 27, 2011
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ASPEN, Colo.—Once Marlies Schild cleared the first gate on this tricky course, the Austrian skier was well on her way to a win.

Schild captured the season-opening World Cup slalom Sunday, easily beating Maria Pietilae-Holmner of Sweden with a blistering final run.

Along with it, Schild gained a measure of redemption after she missed the opening gate on the Aspen course last season and didn't finish. It was a rather rookie mistake that left Schild upset, embarrassed and highly motivated.

She wasn't about to repeat that performance.

"That maybe happens once and never again," Schild said.

Leading after the morning run, despite smacking her chin on a slalom pole, Schild didn't hold back on her second pass and beat Pietilae-Holmner by 1.19 seconds. Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany was third.

"I always try to give my best, try to ski good and not to think about how much I'm in front," said Schild, who now has 30 World Cup wins, many of them in this discipline.

After turning in a fast final run, Pietilae-Holmner had to sit back and wait. She hoped it would be enough to hold off Schild, but knew it probably wasn't.

"She is skiing really good," said Pietilae-Holmner, who trailed by 0.83 seconds after the first run. "(The gap) was too much. I can't do anything when she is skiing this good. There are more races coming and I will try to beat her for sure."

Lindsey Vonn never made it onto the course after withdrawing moments before the race because of a sore back. But the young U.S. skier who has been labeled the next Lindsey Vonn did take the course -- and turned in the day's best performance by an American.

Mikaela Shiffrin glided through the course like a seasoned veteran to finish in eighth place, an impressive showing for the 16-year-old.

She may not have her driver's license yet but she can go as fast as she wants on a race course.

"This is the best I've ever felt ski racing so far," Shiffrin elatedly said. "All I can say is this is unreal."

Before the race, Shiffrin was a bundle of nerves. Usually so stoic, even at her age, Shiffrin was worried about how she would perform.

"My mom was sitting with me the whole morning just saying, `You know how to ski. You know how to ski. Just do it and you're going to be fine,'" Shiffrin recounted.

Shiffrin listened and turned in a splendid opening run, even shocking herself when she glanced up at the leaderboard.

The first word that popped into her mind after seeing she qualified?

Ausgezeichnet, which is German for excellent. The high school junior is currently taking that foreign language in home study.

In any language, her performance was impressive, earning praise from her teammates.

"It's awesome to see her do so well, said Julia Mancuso, who finished third in the giant slalom the day before but skied a little tentative in the slalom and didn't make the cut. "I'm psyched. She skied really well."

With Shiffrin around, the bar is definitely being raised. She brings a youthful zest to the slopes.

"To have that caliber of teammate with us has been really cool," said 32-year-old Sarah Schleper, who failed to qualify for a second run. "For me, it's just adapting to the modern thing and keeping up with 16-year olds. It's actually more of a blessing than anything to have her on our team and to have that push. She's really going to keep the whole team alive."

Vonn elected to skip the slalom -- hardly her best event -- to give her back time to rest after tweaking it in training last week. She plans to return to the slopes Tuesday for a downhill training run in Lake Louise, Alberta. The move makes sense especially since Vonn typically does very well on the hill at Lake Louise, piling up 14 podium finishes, including eight wins.

But it caught Hoefl-Riesch by surprise.

"I didn't know she still had back problems," said Hoefl-Riesch, the reigning overall World Cup champion.

Once close friends, the bond between Hoefl-Riesch and Vonn became strained last season when Hoefl-Riesch blamed Vonn for not congratulating her on the overall victory.

Now, they're attempting to repair that relationship.

"We are not in a fight anymore," Hoefl-Riesch said "We talked about everything and we just had two different points of view to some specific things happening last year. We decided to just be respectful to each other and do not talk bad about each other in the press. We are respectful."

Hoefl-Riesch made up for a crash in the giant slalom on Saturday with a solid performance in the slalom.

"It was not so easy after yesterday, but I tried to trust in what I can do," Hoefl-Riesch said. "That's what I did and it worked out pretty good."

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