By Patrick Lang
LEVI, Finland (Reuters) - Since she set her sights on Vreni Schneider's record of 34 World Cup slalom victories, Marlies Schild has been cursed by ill fate and then eclipsed by the rise of gifted American specialist Mikaela Shiffrin.
Schild and Shiffrin were back in action on Saturday and the trend continued: while the American outclassed the rest of the field in the first slalom of the ski race season, the Austrian failed to complete the first run.
After winning the 2011 slalom world title in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Schild captured six races to claim the discipline's crystal globe for the fourth time.
In the Andorran resort of Soldeu in February 2012, when she won her 33rd World Cup slalom, it seemed only a matter of weeks before she would equal and then upstage Swiss Schneider's record haul of the late 1980s.
Schild's winning run suddenly stopped dead, however. Consistency eluded her and she had to be content with a couple of podium places in the following months before injury struck.
The Austrian queen of slalom tore knee ligaments in Are a few days before Christmas 2012, raising fears that her season was over.
That same weekend, victory went to the up-and-coming Shiffrin, who snatched her maiden World Cup victory on the Swedish slopes.
Fourteen years younger than Schild, the skier from Vail had looked completely bemused nearly a year earlier when she found herself standing on the podium next to her idol in Lienz.
Schild's recovery was faster than initially thought and she gathered enough courage to take part in the world championships at home in Schladming, only to finish ninth.
The racer standing on the top spot with a gold medal around her neck was none other than the 17-year-old Shiffrin and the teenager went on to relieve Schild of her crystal globe in the specialty.
The American returned to the World Cup circuit in Levi on Saturday more dominant than ever, clinching the slalom with a lead of 1.06 seconds over her nearest rival, Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
Schild, back in action for the first time since Schladming after taking time off to nurse her knee, said: "It was okay even though I didn't finish but it was good to be at the start again. I'm looking forward to the next few races."
Asked what she thought of Shiffrin, the 32-year-old Schild was evasive.
"We don't have so much contact but I think she's a nice girl, she knows what she wants. She's very calm, her technique is complete. She makes no mistakes and goes very fast," she said. "She's important for the sport."
Shiffrin paid homage to Schild but said she was excited to see more young skiers coming through in an Olympic season, such as 18-year-old Austrian Christina Ager who finished fourth in her first World Cup race.
"It adds sparkle to the sport," Shiffrin said.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)