Heidi Voelker, of Pittsfield, was an inspiration to young Mikaela Shiffrin on her path to Olympic glory.
Heidi Voelker, of Pittsfield, was an inspiration to young Mikaela Shiffrin on her path to Olympic glory. (Eagle file photo)

It was just another autograph, one like the hundreds that Heidi Voelker had scratched out before. The wide-eyed young girl was only about 6 when she thrust the poster in front of Voelker's eyes, and the veteran U.S. Women's Ski Team member gladly signed.

But she added a little message. On that poster, Voelker wrote, "Always be faster than the boys."

A young Mikaela Shiffrin took those words to heart. She can probably beat a bunch of the boys and has already gone faster than a whole lot of girls. Shiffrin, now 18, is the defending women's World Cup champion in the slalom discipline and leads the point standings on this year's circuit. She is hopeful of producing a medal for her country and team during the Winter Games in Sochi.

Shiffrin's mother, Eileen, grew up in Lanesborough and skied alpine while attending Mount Greylock Regional High School. Eileen graduated with the Mountie class of 1977, and was a regular downhiller at Brodie Mountain, where she skied successfully in the masters division.

Voelker, a Pittsfield native who spent a dozen years on the U.S. national team and who competed in the Winter Games of 1988, ‘92 and ‘94, was flattered when a story in Sports Illustrated on which Shiffrin was the cover told the story of Voelker's quick interaction with the young and future star.

Said Voelker, who remains the Ambassador of Skiing at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. "If you look at her skis and helmet you can see the initials ABFTTB. I'm starting to get more press for that story than I did during my World Cup and Olympic career."

Voelker said she can identify with the grind that is the weekly and seasonal World Cup tour. She's rooting for Shiffrin to claim the gold, but in the bigger picture, said that already having won a World Cup season may be more of Shiffrin's legacy.

"I understand that the Olympics is well-publicized," Voelker said. "But when you win the World Cup, that shows great consistency over a period of time. That's impressive. At the Olympics, it's just one weekend and a couple of races. It could be your day, it might not be your day."

What might turn the slalom into gold for Shiffrin, said Voelker, is the young skier's "emotional maturity."

"That part of her personality blows me away," Voelker added. "When I skied you could easily tell the difference between the teens and the veteran skiers. Mikaela is something of a phenomenon."

From an autograph to surgery, the Voelker-Shiffrin story seems to have come full circle. When Voelker needed knee surgery, her anesthesiologist was Jeff Shiffrin, Mikalea's father. Heidi's father, Larry Voelker, skied masters races with Eileen Shiffrin.

Voelker remains happy in Park City, where she has her own family to raise with husband, Tim. Sons Lucas and Stefan are ages 12 and 9, respectively, and are active in lacrosse and, of course, downhill skiing. In the meantime, Voelker said she will keep an eye on the young Shiffrin.

"We'll see how it goes," Voelker said. "But I know this: She has many years ahead of her."

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.