Shiffrin leads 1st race after six-week injury layoff and closes in on World Cup slalom season title

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ARE, Sweden — Mikaela Shiffrin made a strong return to the Alpine skiing World Cup after a six-week injury layoff Sunday, posting the fastest time in the opening run of the season’s penultimate slalom.

Racing for the first time since hurting her left knee in a downhill crash in Italy, the American star edged out Swiss runner-up Michelle Gisin by 0.02 seconds and Croatian prodigy Zrinka Ljutic by 0.11.

“It’s pretty special. I’ve been lucky to be able to race again this season and I’m really soaking it in. I am enjoying being back and my knee is holding up, it’s doing good work for me,” Shiffrin said.

“I felt like this was a really good run. I was pushing the whole way, and I when I feel the knee, it doesn’t distract me from skiing or from pushing my skis, so then that’s perfect.”

Shiffrin had been out since she sprained the MCL and tibiofibular ligament in her knee in January, while also still recovering from a bone bruise she had sustained at the start of the season.

“I have only had four normal slalom sessions in the last seven weeks,” Shiffrin said. “Right now, I feel really good about my skiing, but I just haven’t had a ton of practice, so maybe it takes a little bit more energy to get that level on that spot.”

Shiffrin is likely to lock up her record-equaling eighth World Cup slalom title in her comeback race. With her Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova out for the season after knee surgery, the American’s only remaining challenger is Lena Duerr.

Trailing Shiffrin by 188 points in the standings, the German skier must win both Sunday’s race and the season-ending slalom at the World Cup finals in Austria next weekend, and hope Shiffrin does not collect more than 11 points in total at those events.

After Sunday’s first run, Duerr was looming in fourth, 0.24 behind Shiffrin.

The season title would be Shiffrin’s eighth in slalom, making her the fourth skier to win eight crystal globes – the traditional prize in Alpine skiing – in a single classification.

Former American teammate Lindsey Vonn achieved the feat in downhill. On the men’s side, Austrian standout Marcel Hirscher won eight overall championships, and Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark reached that number of titles in both slalom and GS.

The slalom title would be Shiffrin’s only globe this season. She skipped Saturday’s giant slalom on the same hill and won’t compete in the speed events of the finals, leaving her without enough races to close the 445-point gap on leader Lara Gut-Behrami. The Swiss star has all but secured her second overall title, after winning it for the first time in 2016.

Shiffrin has already made a winning return from an extensive mid-season break to nurse a knee injury. She didn’t race for nine weeks after getting hurt in December 2015, but won her comeback race at a slalom in Crans-Montana, Switzerland in February 2016.

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