Ski phenom has family in Malone

MALONE – When U.S. slalom skier Mikaela Shiffrin hits the slopes of the Rhosa Khutor Alpine Center in Russia next month, she’ll have a big contingent of extended family here in the North Country pulling for her.

The 18-year-old, who’s taken the World Cup slalom circuit by storm the last two years, is expected to compete for a gold medal in Sochi, Russia, site of this year’s Winter Olympic Games.

That’s a long way from Malone, where Shiffrin’s grandmother grew up and lived until the early 1950s, and where several cousins of Eileen Shiffrin, Mikaela’s mom, still live today.

The family tree also includes, through marriage, Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne. His wife Jennifer is first cousins with Eileen Shiffrin and therefore first cousins once removed with Mikaela Shiffrin.

“My wife and her relatives are all related to her,” Champagne told the Enterprise. “The entire extended family will be watching (the Olympics), and we’re wishing her the best. We’re all really excited.”

Mikaela Shiffrin’s North Country roots can be traced back to her grandmother, Pauline (Towle) Condron, who was born in Montreal and lived there for two years before moving to Malone, Eileen Shiffrin told the Enterprise in an email. Known as Polly, Pauline grew up in Malone as one of six children. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Ursuline Academy and Loretta Business Institute in Plattsburgh.

In 1952, Polly moved from Malone to Lanesborough, Mass., after she married Joseph Condron, who worked as an engineer for General Electric in Pittsfield, Mass. They raised four children: Patrick, Anne-Marie, Eileen and Caroline. Joseph Condron died in 2006, but Polly, who’s now in her early 90s, still lives in Lanesborough.

Most of the family’s remaining ties to the North Country are through Polly’s brother, the late Charles Towle, and his wife Madonna. They raised six children, many of whom still live in the Malone area, like Cecilia (Towle) Benware, a kindergarten teacher at Davis Elementary School.

“Eileen’s side of the family, they had four children, similar in ages to some of the six kids in our family,” Benware said. “Her family would come and visit or we would go there to Massachusetts for weddings, reunions or whatever family events were happening.”

Eileen Shiffrin said she spent a week in the Malone area during several summers when she was in her teens, “having a blast” with her cousins. It’s been at least five years since she visited the area, she said.

A nurse and a former top-ranked high school racer herself, relatives describe Eileen Shiffrin as very focused and competitive, a trait they think she passed on to her daughter.

“The last time I saw Eileen, we were playing a board game,” said Mary Claire (Towle) Astarita, another one of Eileen Shiffrin’s cousins. “It was the girls versus the guys. Eileen got really upset because the girls were losing the game. It got really pretty heated. She has that fierce competitive nature.”

Born in Vail, Colo. in 1995, Mikaela Shiffrin has been skiing since she was 3 years old. When she was 8, the family moved to Lyme, N.H., so her father, Jeff, who had been a ski racer at Dartmouth College, could practice anesthesiology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Mikaela attended Burke Mountain Academy, a ski-focused boarding school in Vermont. Since making her World Cup debut in 2011 at age 15, she’s won seven World Cup slaloms. She won the world championship and the World Cup title in slalom last year.

Eileen Shiffrin, who travels on the World Cup circuit with her daughter, said Mikaela has been to Malone only once, for a family event when she was very young.

Nevertheless, Mikaela’s local relatives say they’ve been following her skiing career for a long time, albeit much more closely in the last few years.

“We always knew about it. We were aware of it,” said Jennifer (Towle) Champagne. “Her grandma, my aunt, would talk about it, and her aunts would talk about it. But they are very modest, so we didn’t realize, to be honest, how good she was.”

Astarita, who grew up in Malone but now lives in Long Island, said she and her daughter would watch tapes of Mikaela’s ski races while visiting Caroline Ryan, Eileen Shiffrin’s sister, in Rochester for high school volleyball tournaments.

“We’d watch her going down the mountain in all these competitions, getting better and better,” Astarita said. “I’ve been keeping up with it a lot more the last four years. We’re, like, ecstatic. To see her perform at this level is just thrilling.”

Benware said she’s been telling everyone she knows about her connection to Shiffrin.

“Every chance I get,” she said. “In fact, we had a meeting after school today, and it was about a community dinner that we’re doing, and we’re doing an Olympic theme, so I had to, of course, share the word there. We’re all just so proud of Mikaela and so honored to be able to say we’re related to her.”

Eileen Shiffrin said her daughter has a deep sense of family ties, including with her Malone-area relatives.

“The Towle genes for passion for life, love, laughter, sport, generosity, spirituality have been passed down to Mikaela for sure,” she said. “We always have and continue to hold our relatives and our ties to Malone close to our hearts and appreciate such great support from such special people.”

In Sochi, Mikaela Shiffrin will compete in giant slalom and slalom, scheduled for Feb. 18 and 21, respectively. Astarita said she’ll travel to Massachusetts to watch the races on television with her Aunt Polly and other members of Mikaela’s family. Shiffrin’s Malone-area relatives also plan to watch the races together, likely at the Champagne’s home

“We’ll get some snacks, and we’ll all be hunkered down in front of the TV,” Jennifer Champagne said. “It will be a big party. It’s like the Super Bowl for the extended Shiffrin family.”