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Mikaela Shiffrin still hoping to return before World Cup season ends

Erik Seo for ESPN

VAIL, Colo. -- The bad news for Mikaela Shiffrin is she was reluctantly home for the holidays, rehabbing her injured right knee in Eagle-Vail instead of dominating the World Cup circuit in Europe.

The good news for the 20-year-old Olympic and two-time world slalom champion is she is with her family at a time of year when she is normally far away in foreign hotel rooms and able to work with her parents -- both of whom have medical backgrounds -- on getting back into action.

"When I first got injured, I was thinking that, depending on the timeline for my return, maybe I would go someplace warm for a little bit and decompress," Shiffrin recently told me. "But when I found out that the recovery might be fairly quick compared to other injuries, I decided to go full-speed ahead with recovery and rehab and do whatever I could to get back to skiing and hopefully competing this season."

Shiffrin seemed to be on a mission to become a better all-around skier this season and compete for the overall World Cup title. She was second in the season-opening giant slalom, won a pair of slalom races in Aspen in record fashion over the Thanksgiving weekend and then scored her first speed-event points in a December super-G race won by Lindsey Vonn in Lake Louise, Canada.

But on Dec. 12 in Are, Sweden, Shiffrin crashed during a training run, suffering a deep bone bruise and injuring the medial collateral ligament in her right knee - the first serious injury of an already stellar career. Her agent confirmed that doctors later found a small hairline fracture in the knee as well, but Shiffrin is still targeting a March return.

"A lot of people were telling me to slow down and enjoy some time off, but the truth is I love ski racing, and it's my job," Shiffrin said. "I wouldn't forgive myself if I knew I had the ability to come back 100 percent this season, but I decided to take it easy and enjoy 'time off.'"

Before the injury, Shiffrin called winning her first overall title, something Vonn has done four times, "fairly realistic." That obviously changed in a heartbeat in Sweden. Still, Shiffrin has already won 17 times on the circuit at an age when Vonn picked up her first career win back in 2004.

Shiffrin is also just one win away from tying Tamara McKinney for the second-most wins by an American woman (18), but she has a long way to go to catch Vonn (73).

"That's not what motivates me, but growing up, I saw Lindsey racing and wanted to be like her," Shiffrin said in a previous interview. "[Stats are] definitely on my mind, but I'm not out here just to beat whatever record Lindsey set. I really appreciate her for everything that she's done for our sport - she pretty much singlehandedly putting ski racing on the map in the U.S."

Still, Shiffrin has her own sense of style and likes to put on a show for local crowds. Last year, she won a slalom world championship at Beaver Creek, a mountain that literally overlooks her home town of Eagle-Vail. Vonn took home a bronze at those championships, and was clearly disappointed.

Shiffrin's first slalom win this season in Aspen set a record for the greatest margin of victory and snapped a 34-year-old U.S. winless streak at arguably the nation's most famous ski resort. Vonn, who is more of speed specialist, has never won in Aspen.

"All of sudden this year ... everybody was saying, 'Aspen's coming up, nobody's podiumed [top 3] there in so long, what are you going to do to change that?'" Shiffrin said. "And I was like, 'I'm going to do my best. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't it doesn't. You might have to wait a few years.'" Instead, Shiffrin dominated the field and nearly the won the GS, as well.

She celebrated her second win there by heading home the next day and watching the Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots with her family. Shiffrin was born in Vail, but split time growing up in Colorado and New England, so she's torn with the two teams meeting again in the playoffs.

"I'm a Broncos fan," she laughed. "Well, I'm an everybody fan. I'm a fan of anybody who plays their sport really well. I mean, Tom Brady is an excellent quarterback, an excellent athlete, and I think all football players are some of the best athletes of any sport."

Her time at home also might seem like an opportunity to socialize, but Shiffrin remains intensely focused on her rehab.

"Right now, I'm spending my time mostly focused on rehabbing and working out and getting the strength back in my right leg," she said. "I'm definitely enjoying being home, but I'm on a pretty strict, intense workout regime. I'm pretty confident that if I can get my strength back, when the time comes to ski, I'll be ready to lay the hammer down."

David O. Williams is a freelance writer based in Vail, Colo.