The women’s Alpine skiing landscape changed plenty since the Sochi Olympics, creating intrigue going into this season, which begins with the traditional opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday.
Five storylines to watch as the campaign unfolds:
1. Mikaela Shiffrin adds speed
Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion ever in Sochi, taking gold at age 18. She then won the final two World Cup slaloms of the season in March, clinching a second straight season title in her trademark event.
This year, she will be on overwhelming favorite to bag her third straight World Cup slalom crystal globe (a feat no woman has done since Swiss great Vreni Schneider won four straight from 1992 to 1995).
But Shiffrin’s goals expand to the giant slalom, where she has risen from 49th to 19th to seventh in the World Cup standings the last three seasons. She made her first giant slalom podiums last season. This year, she’d like to win her first giant slalom race, perhaps in Soelden on Saturday.
Shiffrin’s giant slalom results will go into determining if and when she makes her World Cup debut in the super-G, which she would like to do before the World Championships in Colorado in February.
Shiffrin, who was fifth and sixth in the overall World Cup standings the last two years, could begin her blossom into a threat to the world’s top all-around skiers this season.
2. Lindsey Vonn’s return
The last time ski fans saw the 2010 Olympic downhill champion race, she couldn’t finish a downhill in Val d’Isere, France, on Dec. 21. Two weeks later, Vonn gave up her bid to return to the Olympics from major right knee surgery.
Now, the four-time World Cup overall champion is targeting a return at the first speed races of the season in Lake Louise, Alberta, the first weekend of December. It’s the same setting where she debuted last season following her February 2013 World Championships crash and November 2013 training setback.
Vonn likely won’t be a contender for the overall title this season, since she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to race giant slalom, let alone if she ever does slalom again.
Her goal instead is to close the gap on retired Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s record for World Cup victories (62). Vonn has 59 wins.
3. Anna Fenninger, the returning champion
Shiffrin, Vonn, Maria Hoefl-Riesch and Tina Maze garnered most of the headlines the last few years, but it’s the Austrian Fenninger who was the world’s best skier last season.
Fenninger, 25, won the Sochi Olympic super-G and took silver in the giant slalom. She came back from the Winter Games to finish first or second in five of the final eight races of the season, surpassing Hoefl-Riesch for the World Cup overall title.
Fenninger became the youngest World Cup overall champion since Vonn in 2009 and the first woman from Austria to claim the title since Nicole Hosp in 2007. Austria is the most successful nation in Olympic Alpine history and also home to the world’s best male skier, Marcel Hirscher.
Fenninger excels in the downhill, super-G and giant slalom. She’ll be in the way of Vonn in the former two events and Shiffrin in the latter. Given her age, there’s reason to believe she hasn’t peaked yet. Her closest competitor last season, Hoefl-Riesch, has retired.
4. Tina Maze’s final season?
Maze, a four-time Olympic medalist, said that Sochi marked her final Winter Games. The Slovenian will also take a break after this season to assess her future. She is 31, one year older than Vonn and two years older than Hoefl-Riesch.
Maze had arguably the greatest World Cup season ever in 2012-13 with a record 2,414 points (more than twice as many as second-place Hoefl-Riesch). She was first or second in all five disciplines.
She was not the same skier for most of 2013-14, needing three months and a coaching change before winning her first race Jan. 25. Maze flipped the switch in February, becoming the only Alpine skier to win two gold medals in Sochi, but didn’t win any more races the rest of the World Cup season.
At her best, Maze is Shiffrin’s biggest threat in the slalom, the world’s best in the giant slalom and a podium favorite in the super-G and downhill. But it’s anyone’s guess what kind of form to expect as Soelden approaches.
5. Best of the rest
Julia Mancuso‘s bronze medal in the Sochi super combined was shocking because she didn’t finisher higher than seventh in any World Cup race that season.
Mancuso, 30, owns nine Olympic or World Championships medals, but she hasn’t won a World Cup race since Feb. 21, 2012, and has never won a World Cup season title in any discipline. Will she build on that Olympic bronze, or should we expect to see results more in line with last year’s World Cup?
More should be expected of Swiss Lara Gut and Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather, who were third and fifth in the overall standings last season.
Gut, 23, won three of the first four races last season, including Soelden, and two of the last four at the World Cup finals. She went into a midseason lull, though, and managed the same Olympic medal output as Mancuso — a single bronze.
Weirather, 25, excelled during the midseason in December and January. She looked like a multiple medal threat in Sochi until crashing in training one day before her first race, wiping her out of the Winter Games and the rest of the World Cup campaign.