By Evan Johnson
Gabriella Kolev beams over the awards bouquet given to her by Mikaela Shiffrin.
By Evan Johnson
For the youngest ski racers, watching the World Cup was an opportunity to see their heroes perform. Speaking at a press conference after winning Sunday’s slalom race, Mikaela Shiffrin said she saw a bit of herself in these young faces that lined up for autographs and lined the sidelines, rattling cow bells, waving signs and cheering – especially the shy ones.
“I try to look for those kids because I feel like they’re always the ones who are not going to ask for something but may be the ones who deserve it the most,” she said.
It was this recognition that drove the reigning world champion to summon 9-year-old Gabriella Kolev from Stamford, Conn. from the back of the room to hand her the bouquet of flowers that had been presented at the awards ceremony just 20 minutes earlier.
“On days like today when I’m feeling on top of the world, it’s people like you who bring me down to earth, so thank you,” Shiffrin said to Kolev.
The presentation was not without significance. Last year, Kolev, a U-10 racer at Hunter Mountain, was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, a condition which affects more than 300,000 children in the U.S. The news came following Gabriella’s diagnoses with both Celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten; and Hashimotos disease, a reaction where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland.
“It’s hard when you’re a super sport and have adult-sized pain as a kid and don’t know what’s going on,” said her mother, Michelle Kolev.
A racer since the age of 3, Gabriella’s favorite racer is the 22-year-old Shiffrin and she watched her interviews and races on TV. This year, Gabriella was named an honoree of the National Arthritis Foundation and extended an invitation to her idol to run in the Foundation’s annual Jingle Bell Run in December.
Mikaela’s agent and management responded immediately to Kolev’s letter and arranged a meeting at the World Cup race over the weekend.
In addition to the flowers, Shiffrin also signed her helmet and gave her the bib she wore during Sunday’s slalom race, which she won with a dominating finish.
Arthritis can cause severe pain in the joints and difficulty moving. Celiac and Hashimoto’s can cause upset stomach and low energy levels. But Kolev said she refused to hang up her skis.
“I thought that I was not going to do as well as I could because of the disease I had,” she said. “But the disease sort of helped me get stronger because I believed in myself.”