The Alpine skiing season figures to be a three-woman show, following a slew of retirements and one star’s announced break from the sport.
Of the reigning Olympic, World and World Cup champions across all five disciplines, three total skiers are active this year — Anna Fenninger, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.
The season starts with a giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday (full schedule here).
Co-Olympic downhill champion Dominique Gisin retired after last season, as did three-time Olympic medalist Nicole Hosp. Tina Maze, who earned two gold medals at the 2014 Olympics and at the 2015 World Championships, is sitting out this season and may never return.
This is the only season in the four-year cycle that doesn’t have a World Championships or Olympics, so the dangling carrot is the World Cup overall title — awarded to the skier who accumulates the most points from World Cup season results across all disciplines from October through March.
Fenninger (1,553), Vonn (1,087) and Shiffrin (1,036) are the only returning skiers who tallied more than 1,000 points last season. The next-best returning skier is Swedish slalom specialist Frida Hansdotter, who had 679 points.
That drop-off is the main reason why this season’s World Cup overall chase figures to be fought among three women.
Fenninger, a 26-year-old known for doing a photo shoot with live cheetahs, aims to join Vonn as the only women since 1992 to win three straight World Cup overall titles.
Fenninger is nearly a dominant all-around skier, notching at least three World Cup podium finishes each in downhill, super-G and giant slalom last season, plus winning the only super combined. She rarely races slalom.
Fenninger, who was set back slightly by a knee injury in preseason training, is coming off prevailing in one of the tightest World Cup overall races ever last season. She entered the season’s final race trailing Maze by 18 points, won the finale, and edged Maze by 22 points for the overall title.
Vonn, who turned 31 on Sunday, has said her goal this season is to earn a fifth World Cup overall title. She hasn’t taken the crown since 2012, one year before the first of her two major knee surgeries that kept her from defending her Olympic downhill title in Sochi.
For Vonn to close last year’s gap on Fenninger, she likely must tally significant points in the giant slalom. And she must overcome another injury, fracturing an ankle in August training in New Zealand. Vonn reportedly said Monday that she is “more likely than not” to skip Soelden.
Vonn impressed in her comeback last season, winning eight races and breaking the women’s World Cup career wins record, but all the victories were in downhill and super-G.
Vonn made three total starts in combineds and giant slaloms, finishing one of them, the World Cup finale giant slalom, where she was fifth. That earned Vonn 45 total World Cup points in those disciplines.
In contrast, Fenninger gained 642 points in giant slalom and super combined en route to finishing 466 points clear of Vonn in the final overall standings. There’s your difference.
Vonn can become the oldest women’s World Cup overall champion ever this season. She can also move within one overall title of the record six held by retired Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll.
Vonn can also grab her eighth downhill season title, which would tie the record for most titles in one discipline. That mark is held by retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark.
Stenmark also holds the overall World Cup career wins record of 86. Vonn is 19 wins shy of that. If Vonn continues on the pace she set last season, she will reach 86 during the 2018 Olympic season, when she hopes to become the oldest women’s Alpine skiing Olympic medalist ever.
Then there’s Shiffrin, who in 2014 became the youngest Olympic slalom champion. The 20-year-old who races with the letters ABFTTB on the back of her helmet (Always Be Faster Than The Boys) hopes to test herself against the world’s fastest women for the first time this season.
Like Vonn, Shiffrin must expand her repertoire to challenge Fenninger for the World Cup overall title.
Shiffrin has won every slalom title the last three seasons and is improving in giant slalom, but she’s never raced a World Cup downhill, super-G or combined. She can’t possibly contend with Fenninger of the last two seasons with zero points in three of the five World Cup disciplines.
Shiffrin knows that and, for the second straight year, hopes to make her World Cup super-G debut. Last season’s plan was scrapped after a slow start to her season in slalom.
Shiffrin, while famous for saying at the Sochi Olympics that she dreamed of winning five gold medals in 2018, has more realistically said she doesn’t want to contest the speed events of super-G and, later, downhill if the additions could jeopardize her prowess in the technical events of slalom and giant slalom.
Shiffrin will be heavily favored to earn a fourth straight World Cup slalom season title, in part because two of the four women closest to her in last year’s standings aren’t competing this season. The other two, Hansdotter and Czech Sarka Strachova, turn 30 and 31, respectively, this year.
Shiffrin’s progression in the giant slalom is just as notable as her continued dominance in the slalom. In GS, she’s risen in the World Cup standings from 49th to 19th to seventh to third the last four seasons.
No woman has captured both the giant slalom and slalom World Cup season titles since Swede Anja Pärson in 2004.
If Shiffrin wins the World Cup overall title, she would be the youngest to do so since Janica Kostelic in 2001.
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