Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics …
1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang
Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.
It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.
Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.
“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”
The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.
What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.
If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.
“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”
2. Lindsey Vonn must heal
Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.
After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.
Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.
Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.
“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”
3. U.S. lacks young stars
Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.
Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.
Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.
All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?
Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.
4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends
Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.
Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.
He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.
But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.
For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.
In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.
The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.
5. Surprises in St. Moritz
Most races provided surprise medalists.
In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.
New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).
More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.
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