Alpine skiers to start World Cup season unlike any other

Ted Ligety
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The Alpine skiing World Cup is set for its usual start in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday, but it will be far from a traditional fall and winter for the world’s best racers aiming to bounce around Europe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Markus Waldner, the International Ski Federation’s men’s World Cup director, said the season schedule is a matter of survival and hanging by a thread, according to Austrian media this week.

“The chance is high that we cancel some events this season,” Waldner told officials, according to The Associated Press on Oct. 1.

Races through March in 13 different countries, including world championships in Italy and 2022 Olympic test events in China in February, may be pending a host area’s rules on gatherings and quarantines. Then there are the potential travel restrictions for individual skiers’ home nations and training bases.

“The only safe thing you can do is travel as little as possible, stay put, do your racing and keep it simple,” NBC Sports Alpine skiing analyst Steve Porino said.

After the first two stops in Austria, the men and women have scheduled races in France in December, with the men then heading to four different venues in Italy before the New Year. France and Italy are among the European nations to reimpose restrictions amid a recent surge in cases.

In January between both tours, races are scheduled in Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland.

There will be no races in North America due to pandemic-related travel concerns. In past seasons, the men’s and women’s tours combined to visit Vermont, Colorado and Alberta in late November and early December.

At least seven of the top 10 ski racing nations must be allowed to enter athletes five weeks before a race for it to count as a World Cup, barring exceptions.

There will not be the typical masses of fans at the opening races on the Rettenbach glacier on Saturday (women’s giant slalom) and Sunday (men’s giant slalom).

U.S. skiers took detours en route to Soelden. U.S. women’s head coach Paul Kristofic said they can usually start offseason training in April or May, but the pandemic pushed it to June and kept it domestic to Copper Mountain, Colo., and Mount Hood, Ore., rather than a normal trip to South America. They flew to Europe earlier than usual and spent the last six weeks on the glaciers.

Kristofic said that, since Sept. 1, it has been “a level playing field” for training versus the top European nations. Pandemic protocols this fall have been complicated, down to the amount of time a group can spend in a meeting to which people can load into certain cars.

At what confidence the season can be completed in full, or close to it, is a shared consideration inside the circuit.

“The challenge is the numbers are going the wrong way in Europe right now,” Kristofic said. “I think it’ll sort of be a week-by-week thing [for races happening] where it’s difficult to say which way it could go.”

Two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin announced last week that she will miss Soelden after tweaking her back in training. Shiffrin planned to return to the U.S., according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard last week.

Another double Olympic gold medalist, Ted Ligety, is slated to start Sunday. He plans to fly back and forth between the U.S., where his wife and three young boys will stay, and Europe for giant slalom races this season, according to TeamUSA.org. Ligety, a 36-year-old bidding for a fifth and final Olympics in 2022, pared his racing schedule in recent years to focus on his trademark discipline.

The first Americans to race Saturday will be Nina O’BrienPaula Moltzan, Keely Cashman and AJ Hurt.

“The target out of the four girls is to get two in the second run [top 30] and solid performances out of AJ Hurt and Keely Cashman, who haven’t had quite as much training as the others,” Kristofic said.

American technical-event skiers will fly back to the U.S. between Soelden and the next stop, four weeks later in Austria, Kristofic said.

The European skiers who are focused on a World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing for accumulating points in all races, can’t look at this weekend as a soft opening.

“Dosing your effort is probably a bad idea because we could be pulling the pin early on the season,” Porino said. “Soelden matters more than it has ever mattered.”

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