Mikaela Shiffrin roaring down the mountain

During one of the biggest moments of her young ski-racing career, 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin wasn't even there. When her name was called as the 2012 FIS World Cup Rookie of the Year, Shiffrin was in her hotel room, asleep.

"I didn't know it was an award, so I was completely unaware," she said. "The party where it was awarded was at a bar and I wasn't allowed in. Also, I was exhausted."

That Shiffrin is emerging as America's brightest new ski-racing star is hardly shocking. Rumblings of her being the "next big thing" started emanating from ski-racing circles two years ago, when she was only 15. How quickly she's fulfilled those expectations, however, is impressive. At 16, she became the youngest to win a U.S. Alpine championship, a slalom title she successfully defended last year. In just her fourth World Cup start, she finished eighth, in Aspen last year. Four races later, she was on her first World Cup podium, in Lienz, Austria. She finished the season ranked 17th in slalom.

"It was really impressive the way this young girl performed on training days, and that's why we didn't have any doubt to get her on the World Cup level," said the U.S. ski team women's technical coach, Roland Pfeifer. "We knew what she was going to accomplish, even on the World Cup, and even though she's only 16."

Now in her sophomore season on the World Cup (and her senior year in high school), Shiffrin has become a legitimate contender in any slalom race. She was in the top 10 in the first two slaloms this year -- third in the season opener in Levi, Finland, and seventh in Aspen. She earned her first career victory by winning a night slalom in Are, Sweden on Dec. 20. She now leads the World Cup slalom standings ahead of Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.

Now the focus is to get her on the same level in giant slalom, where she struggled last year, making only one cut.

"I think she has the same potential in GS as in slalom," Pfeifer said after Levi. "But it's uncertain how long it will take to get her there."

Shiffrin answered that question quickly, in the same city where she had her breakout in slalom. At the 2012 Aspen World Cup, she landed her first top-10 GS finish, taking ninth. "It was a huge breakthrough moment for me," Shiffrin said.

While Roland points to Shiffrin getting more comfortable on the faster, injected (in which snow is pumped with water for a firmer, icier surface) courses used on the World Cup, Shiffrin said her success was more about an improved mental approach.

"I'm getting more comfortable with faster surfaces, for sure, but mainly I just figured out what I need to think about in the start," she said. "Sometimes I'm thinking too hard about technique or tactics or something about the course. I just need to clear my mind and try to find a good feeling, and just go as fast as I can. I figured that out for the slalom, and I tried to do it with the GS, and it worked. It was the most amazing feeling."

When you are America's fastest-rising star, comparisons to the most successful American ski racer ever are inevitable. While Shiffrin doesn't duck the Lindsey Vonn analogies, she also said Vonn -- one of the top female racers of all time -- deserves more respect than that.

"It's really an honor to be compared to her, but then I also remind people that I'm not her," Shiffrin said. "She put ski racing on the map, especially in the U.S. There are things that she has done that I just won't be able to do because she's already done them."

Before such comparisons can be taken seriously, Shiffrin needs to improve in GS and master the speed events: super-G and downhill. What makes Vonn so great is that she's a rare four-discipline threat. That's Shiffrin's goal, as well.

"I love speed and I love both super-G and downhill," she said. "I'm just trying to make sure my GS skiing is totally dialed in so when it comes time to make that transition, it's as smooth and effortless as possible."

In that regard, her coaches are taking a very measured approach. "She definitely has the possibility to do super-G and downhill because she's a strong lady. She has the right calmness," Pfeifer said. "But we do not want to be greedy and push her too fast into super-G and downhill. That would be the biggest mistake we could make."

Pfeifer said it could be years before Shiffrin makes that transition. Shiffrin has a different schedule in mind. "Pretty soon," she contended. "Maybe even this year I'll do a few super-G's. It's all up in the air."

Regardless of the timing, Pfeifer has little doubt she'll be successful. Not because of her talent, which is hard to deny, but because of her work ethic.

"I've never seen a lady working this hard," Pfeifer said. "That's a good message to the younger kids."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.