For two skiers so often linked, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are rarely in the same place. That will be the case again at the World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, these next two weeks.
Vonn, the winningest woman in World Cup history, competes at her seventh Worlds as one of the oldest medal contenders at age 32, after completing another cycle of crashes and injuries followed by a return to the top of the World Cup podium in the last year.
She will race the super-G on Tuesday, then the super combined on Friday and the downhill on Sunday.
“My goals are definitely to try to get medals, hopefully two,” Vonn said, according to the Denver Post. “In downhill and super-G, I have a good chance at getting medals, especially in downhill.”
She will figuratively pass the baton to Shiffrin for week two in St. Moritz.
In her third worlds, Shiffrin will skip the first week’s speed events and race the giant slalom on Feb. 16 and slalom Feb. 18. She could become the second woman to win three straight world slalom titles and, given she has won multiple World Cup races in both disciplines this season, the first woman in 20 years to sweep the GS and slalom at one worlds.
Though Shiffrin dabbles in downhill and super-G on the World Cup — finishing a career-high fourth in her most recent super-G — the 21-year-old who shares Vonn’s hometown of Vail, Colo., is not ready to expand her championships schedule quite yet.
“Is it about going for as many medals as you can, or is it about taking advantage of your best events and trying to have the best chance of winning a medal in those events?” Shiffrin said in a phone interview last week. “Right now, I’m going with the latter because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet. But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could.”
Though the worlds schedule calls to focus on Vonn before Shiffrin, the results of the past year say otherwise.
Shiffrin is the world’s best female skier by virtue of leading the World Cup overall standings through 26 of 37 races this season. She has won 11 World Cup races in the last 365 days, the most of any man or woman, including her first two outright giant slalom wins plus that fourth place in a super-G. Shiffrin could become the third U.S. woman to take the overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, after Tamara McKinney and Vonn (who did it four times).
Shiffrin is rounding into the all-around skier so many imagined she would turn into by the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. Remember that in Sochi, Shiffrin had the exact same schedule she’ll have in St. Moritz — giant slalom and slalom.
About 13 hours after becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion, Shiffrin blurted in a press conference in Sochi that she dreamed of winning five gold medals in four years’ time, sweeping all five Olympic Alpine events (no skier has ever won four).
The 18-year-old was running on two hours of sleep and immediately regretted revealing it. The dream did happen, but she didn’t want to sound arrogant.
Shiffrin doesn’t think it’s an unattainable dream — “I feel like a lot of people don’t stretch those boundaries. … I’m trying to show people what’s not impossible,” she said six months later — and neither did President Obama.
“I’ve just got three words of advice,” Obama directed at Shiffrin in a White House address in front of the Olympic team in March 2014. “Go for it.”
One might think that since Shiffrin is only racing giant slalom and slalom at worlds, she is not in position to try for five gold medals in PyeongChang. Shiffrin has only raced two World Cup downhills, both this season, with a best finish of 13th.
The U.S. women will get four spots in the PyeongChang downhill. Only two — Vonn and Jackie Wiles — have finished in the top five of a downhill this season. It would not take much more improvement for Shiffrin to earn an Olympic downhill start.
Shiffrin notes that the Olympic venue is an equalizer. It is not in a traditional skiing hotbed. The women’s World Cup tour gets its first visit to PyeongChang next month.
“[Next year] 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,” Shiffrin said.
Shiffrin and Vonn are both looking at goals beyond the World Championships and the Olympics. For Shiffrin, it’s that World Cup overall title. She was originally planning to skip the World Cup stop after the World Championships and head over to South Korea early to familiarize with the Olympic venue.
But now, with a considerable-but-not-comfortable 180-point lead in the standings, she will race two super combineds and a super-G in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, the week after worlds.
“Some things are starting to fall into place. I’m starting to think that it might actually be possible to win the overall,” said Shiffrin, who spent the fall and early winter stressing to media that she wasn’t focused on the title but rather perfecting her slalom and giant slalom.
She’s never made a World Cup podium in either discipline on the Crans-Montana schedule. If Shiffrin wants to start all five individual races in PyeongChang, she might prove she deserves those spots in Crans-Montana.
Then there is Vonn, whose current line is that the most important of her three remaining career goals is to break the World Cup career wins record held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark.
The other goals, less important, are to win Olympic gold in PyeongChang after missing Sochi due to knee injuries, and to become the first woman in a men’s World Cup race some time after the 2018 Winter Games.
“Ingemar’s record is something that would be remembered more in the history of skiing than anything else,” Vonn told media in St. Moritz.
Vonn is at 77 wins, nine shy of Stenmark. She will not catch the Swede this season but will next year if she stays healthy and continues to win at her usual rate. Neither is certain given her detailed history of crashes and her age.
At the last World Cup stop, Vonn crashed in the same place in a training run and in the downhill race. Then she skied conservatively in the next day’s super-G. She says confidence going into Tuesday’s super-G in St. Moritz is not at her highest, but it won’t affect the way she races.
“The only thing that matters is the medals,” she said. “I’m either going to win, or I’m going to go [crash] out.”
Four years ago, Vonn crashed out of worlds in the super-G and would end up missing the Sochi Olympics. Four years ago, Shiffrin became the youngest world champion in 28 years, setting herself up to win at the Sochi Olympics.
Two years ago, Vonn tearfully left worlds in Vail with a single bronze medal and vowed her next goal would be to reclaim the World Cup overall title. That never happened, and after more crashes, Vonn has narrowed her focus to downhill and super-G and given up hope of contending for an overall title ever again.
Two years ago, Shiffrin repeated as world slalom champion in Vail. She has since become the overall leader.
Vonn and Shiffrin come to St. Moritz from different places. They’ve competed in the same race once in the last 11 months and are not often in the same training circles given their focuses on different events.
“I think she’s going to be a big character, a big personality on the World Cup for a long time,” Vonn said of Shiffrin.
They had one deep conversation, over hot cocoa two summers ago. From that chat, Shiffrin most remembers, respects and has learned from Vonn’s philosophy on competing against countrywomen and teammates.
“She said, yeah, we’re all friends, we have dinner, we hang out and laugh, and it’s awesome,” Shiffrin said. “But, at the end of the day, I go back to my room, I take care of my own stuff, and I do my job in order to have success.”Follow @nzaccardi