ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin felt "really excited" Wednesday after winning the first women's World Cup race of 2023.
And it wasn't because she had just moved within one victory of Lindsey Vonn's record.
"I skied better than I probably ever have," Shiffrin said.
The defending overall champion dealt best with difficult course conditions to dominate a floodlit slalom and raise her career tally to 81 World Cup wins. She could match the best mark Thursday at another slalom on the same course.
American standout Vonn set the women's record of 82 before retiring in 2019. The overall best mark is 86, from Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark.
"I'm happy, I'm incredibly happy. I mean, I had so much fun skiing today and it was really my best skiing both runs today," said Shiffrin, who beat runner-up Petra Vlhová by 0.76 seconds, with the rest of the field finishing more than 1.20 off the pace.
The former overall champion of Slovakia had won the race on the outskirts of the Croatian capital the past three seasons. Vlhová's rise to the top has motivated Shiffrin.
"I feel like I would not be here tonight with skiing like that, if it wasn't for Petra pushing the limits in the last three years. She's been so strong and it has encouraged me to keep working harder and harder and harder," Shiffrin said.
"Nothing less than the best is going to work. I was taking all the risk I needed and made it on the finish and that's just an amazing feeling when it's good enough."
Shiffrin certainly has been more than just good enough in recent weeks.
The four-time overall champion stretched her winning streak to five races, which included three different events: super-G, giant slalom, and slalom.
Only two female racers have won more races in succession: Swiss skier Vreni Schneider won eight in 1988-89 and Germany's Katja Seizinger won six in 1997.
Earlier, Shiffrin won back-to-back slaloms in Finland to start the 2022-23 season.
On Wednesday, Shiffrin stood up to the challenge to defend her first-run lead as the last starter on the deteriorating Crveni Spust course.
While no racers remained without mistakes, Shiffrin never got in real trouble in her final run. She even won time on Vlhová at every split and celebrated with both arms up after crossing the finish, followed by two fist pumps.
"That was the most exciting thing of the day, that I felt so good skiing when it's a bit softer. The victory is incredible, but I'm more happy with how I feel, it's just calm," Shiffrin said.
The American said she used new skis which she and her equipment supplier Atomic developed over the past two years. The new set-up is meant to give her a better control on softer courses that have been injected with water and salt — like the one in Zagreb.
Shiffrin drew an unfavorable start number and began the opening run last among the top-seven ranked racers. But she did best to keep the line between the gates, despite being bounced around by ruts and waves in the rather soft snow surface after days with temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (50-59 Fahrenheit).
Shiffrin led Anna Swenn Larsson by 0.23 seconds. The Swede won her first World Cup slalom in November and dropped to third after the final run, swapping places with Vlhová.
"These kinds of conditions have been challenging for me, in the last two years especially. But tonight, it was just a really perfect combination of the equipment with my skiing," Shiffrin said.
"I'm just thankful when it goes well. In the last five races it went really went well. So, now I am just on a groove and keep riding the wave until the wave is over."