For Mikaela Shiffrin, a world Alpine skiing championships like no other

0 Comments

Mikaela Shiffrin goes into the world Alpine skiing championships having played catch-up all season: a 300-day break between races after her father’s death, a back injury that delayed her return and a global pandemic that sliced her training more than that of European rivals.

Yet she won twice in 10 starts since November (about the career winning percentage for many of the greatest ski racers in history). She made two other podiums and hasn’t finished lower than sixth in any World Cup. Shiffrin is ranked third in the world in slalom and fifth in giant slalom, events she won at the Olympics.

“That’s a perfectly OK place to be,” she told NBC Sports this week going into Monday’s first race at worlds, a combined, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Shiffrin’s years of utter dominance — four consecutive world championships in slalom, World Cup wins in every discipline and three overall titles, including 17 victories alone in 2019 — came in seasons that were, in stark contrast to 2020, uninterrupted.

“Winning is not normal,” said Mike Day, one of her coaches since 2016. “She’s made it seem pretty damn normal over the last four years.”

ALPINE WORLDS: TV Schedule

Little about Shiffrin’s career has been normal. Earning her first world title at 17 and her first Olympic title at 18 was not normal. Nor, before turning 26 years old, moving to third on the World Cup all-time victories list (now with 68).

The last 370 days haven’t been normal, either. Just when Shiffrin was emotionally ready to return to ski racing following her father’s death last February, the coronavirus prematurely ended last season in March. She flew from Colorado to Åre, Sweden, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, for the final races before they were canceled.

Then came a summer where ski training was replaced by learning about fixed income securities and other behind-the-scenes business that her dad handled. (“Feeling like I was in college, not feeling like I was a professional athlete,” she said.)

Shiffrin eventually flew to Europe for the start of the season in October, but tweaked her back, which cost her two more weeks of training and deferred her race return another five weeks.

Day said she recorded about 25% of the usual amount of skiing she gets during a seven-month offseason.

“Every day I feel like I’m still playing catch-up,” Shiffrin said, likening this season to being stuck in stop-and-go traffic “and slamming on the brakes every now and then.”

“Eventually, it will clear up,” she said, followed by a short laugh.

That kind of upheaval would seem to greatly affect a skier like Shiffrin, who is meticulous, relishes training and had no previous experience with curtailment. She had no major surgeries in her first decade on tour and only once missed significant time — two months in 2015-16 with an MCL tear, hairline fracture and bone bruise in her right knee that didn’t require going under the knife.

“It takes time to heal,” she said. “It takes time to get motivated in all the right places. It takes time to remember how to manage energy throughout races, and I also feel like I’m a bit of a different person and I haven’t had the same sort of happy-go-lucky, I-can-do-anything attitude that I’ve had before. It’s been a lot darker and a lot more self-deprecating and just generally not as positive for a while now, and those are also things I’m trying to sort through.”

Shiffrin does not know how far away she is from where she wants to be. There have been special moments this fall and winter, such as under falling snow and floodlights in Flachau, Austria, on Jan. 12.

“I know that I have the capability to ski really fast,” she said, “and if I do, I know [that skiing] has the capability to win.”

Even after the most limiting year of her career, Shiffrin will race more often at these worlds than any of her previous Olympics or world championships.

She entered Monday’s combined (one run super-G and one run slalom) and Tuesday’s super-G, defending her surprise title from 2019. The following week are her bread and butter — giant slalom and slalom.

“Her skiing is pretty good to be competitive in her core events,” Day said. “The super-G and Alpine combined are sort of longer shots with very little preparation.”

Shiffrin raced exclusively GS and slalom on the World Cup so far this season, passing on all speed races for the first time since 2014. She went an entire year between putting on super-G skis before getting four days of training in over the last two weeks.

She likely would not have entered Monday’s combined if the opening run was downhill and not super-G, as it has been in the past. She likely would have skipped Tuesday’s super-G, too, if not for her comfort at Cortina, where she raced five downhills or super-Gs in her World Cup career, including a super-G victory in 2019.

At every biennial worlds, Shiffrin remembers what happened at her debut in 2013. The 17-year-old who entered the championships No. 1 in the World Cup slalom standings was in third place after the opening run.

Steven Nyman, a 6-foot-4-inch American downhiller who had already been to two Olympics, noticed Shiffrin freaking out (her words) in the hospitality area before the second run. Nyman had Shiffrin take off her headphones. He reinforced that, unlike in the World Cup, there’s no points lead to protect in world championships races.

“You go for gold. That’s it,” Shiffrin recalled this week. “Everybody has the same exact mentality, whether they are leading after the first run, or they’re in third after the first run, or they’re in 30th.”

Shiffrin still began her second run a ball of nerves. “But [Nyman] got me psyched up,” she said.

She rallied to win that world championship, gabbed with David Letterman upon returning to the U.S. and hasn’t left an Olympics or worlds without a gold medal since.

“Over the years, I feel like there’s been a little bit more burden involved with ski racing, a little bit more weight, a little bit more pressure,” she said. “I don’t love that, but there’s always some moments where I feel that kind of thing — where it’s carefree and it’s like, the rest of the world, everything else just doesn’t exist anymore — and it’s just me skiing, and it feels like flying, or it feels like dancing. Those moments happen often enough that it keeps me feeling like it’s totally worth it to go through the moments of burden or pain or frustration or pressure or anything else.

“Because there’s not another thing that exists in life that I can imagine gives the feeling that ski racing does when it’s the best it can be.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
Getty
0 Comments

Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
Getty
0 Comments

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!