COURCHEVEL, France — There appears little to prevent Mikaela Shiffrin taking over from Lindsey Vonn as the unstoppable force in women’s ski racing.
Shiffrin has a huge lead in defense of her overall World Cup title, and her four wins this season have been among three different disciplines.
The 22-year-old is branching out and feeling confident about it. And with the PyeongChang Olympics coming, that’s very bad news for rivals.
Her Dec. 2 downhill win at Lake Louise was a personal breakthrough and sent a statement: The Olympic and three-time world slalom champion, who has five giant slalom wins, no longer views herself as a technical specialist.
“I’m finding something new, some more speed,” Shiffrin said. “My positioning, my skiing, my tactics, everything’s coming together. I’m certainly not [just] a slalom skier anymore, I consider myself an all-event skier.”
Her two victories at the French Alpine resort of Courchevel this week — in GS and the inaugural parallel slalom — took her to 35 World Cup wins.
Vonn is the female record-holder with 78. The undisputed star for so many years, Vonn also has four overall World Cup titles and doubtless would have had more if not for serious knee injuries.
She is far from finished, either. The 33-year-old came back in style with a super-G win at Val d’Isere on Saturday — her first World Cup victory since January.
But considering Shiffrin is so much younger, and has an expanding repertoire, she is well positioned to become a record-breaker. The number of wins Shiffrin could get — if she stays injury-free — is potentially staggering.
When asked if she can beat Vonn’s mark, Shiffrin takes a long and thoughtful pause.
“If I’m feeling crazy I can think, yeah, maybe if I keep going this way I could get 78 or something. I could get there,” she said. “But as soon as I think about that, my skiing starts getting really bad. It’s fun to dream about these things, but it’s not my first goal.”
Although supremely confident, the slimly built Shiffrin knows that becoming a multi-event specialist puts her best discipline at risk.
“If I ski my best, then I know it’s good enough to win in any event, actually. Even in downhill,” she said. “But it is very, very difficult to stay strong in every event. The better I get with speed, the more my slalom suffers.”
Intriguingly, she could race Vonn in downhill in PyeongChang.
Injury-hit Vonn missed the Sochi Winter Games and is intensely motivated to reclaim the downhill title she won at Vancouver 2010.
Facing Vonn in downhill would be a treat for U.S. fans — and somewhat like Shiffrin agreeing to fight Vonn in her own backyard.
It might be too good to refuse.
“I hadn’t been planning on doing the downhill. For sure, after Lake Louise I’m considering it more,” Shiffrin said. “It’s cool that the tech [slalom and GS] races are first [at the Olympics], so that makes me feel more comfortable with doing the speed races.”
Asked what would happen if she actually beat Vonn in downhill at the Olympics, Shiffrin bursts into loud laughter.
It is not a mocking laugh, but one of incredulity at the idea of toppling arguably the greatest female downhill skier of all time.
Shiffrin then becomes serious again, talking about Vonn with utmost respect, yet her burning ambition is hard to contain.
“If I were able to win a medal in any of the speed events that would be absolutely incredible,” Shiffrin said. “If it was gold, even better.”
She could also face Vonn in super-G. Their first Olympic meeting could be in giant slalom, which Vonn has said she’s targeting, though it is not one of her strong events.
Shiffrin’s workload is unlikely to include the nations’ team event, which features parallel slalom and makes its Olympic debut.
“I’m not planning on it. To take that really seriously we would have to find some time to have the U.S. team training together, and there is no time,” she said. “Even right now, my biggest concern is thinking about racing the downhill as well as super-G and [super] combined.”
“That’s such a full [program] and I don’t know,” she says, wearily contemplating how much it would take out of her. “It’s exhausting.”
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