With the Winter Olympic sports season ending prematurely, a sport-by-sport look at what we learned to take into the 2020-21 season, the last full season before the next Winter Games. Figure skating will be covered in a forthcoming piece …
Mikaela Shiffrin endured an athlete’s gamut
Shiffrin finished her most challenging season yet by achieving an otherwise simple goal: making a few good turns on her skis. That was three weeks ago in training in Are, Sweden, about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
“It was probably the biggest, most successful day that I’ve had so far, maybe in my career,” Shiffrin said, according to The New York Times.
Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, died suddenly on Feb. 2. She took a month-plus break from the World Cup circuit. Shiffrin decided in early March to return for what would be the revised final races of the season in Sweden. After landing and practicing, those races were called off.
Shiffrin entered the season looking to become the second woman to win four straight World Cup overall titles, joining 1970s Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll. She was on track through January, scattering six race victories among struggles with confidence, choking up in at least one Austrian TV interview. During her break, she went from leading the standings by 370 points to trailing Italian Federica Brignone by 153 points.
Next season, Shiffrin will pass recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third on the all-time wins list with a pair of victories. If she continues her recent winning percentage, she will near Lindsey Vonn‘s female record of 82 around the 2022 Olympics. She will also be racing, for the first time next season and for the rest of her career, with the memory of her dad.
“It has been therapeutic to be on the mountain, maybe even healing,” she said earlier this month. “I’ve found training to be a place where I can feel closer to my dad, yet it provides enough of a distraction so that feeling of closeness can be separated from the pain.”
Men’s Alpine Skiing: Surprise successor to Hirscher
The first season post-Hirscher, who bagged the previous eight overall titles. The primary thoughts at the outset were 1) It’s time for France’s Alexis Pinturault, second the previous two seasons, to ascend with his talent spanning slalom to super-G. 2) It’s time for Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, Hirscher’s fiercest rival in slalom and giant slalom, to benefit the most from Hirscher’s absence and win his first title. 3) It’s time for the renaissance of the downhill racer, perhaps Italian Dominik Paris, to take hold of the overall.
All three of those men showed early flashes. But Pinturault lacked consistency. Kristoffersen ceded points to emerging rivals in slalom. Paris suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a January training crash.
Enter Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde. Kilde, 27, came into the season with a previous best finish of seventh in the overall. He left it as the champion, passing Pinturault in what turned out to be the final race on March 7. Kilde, from a Norwegian village west of Oslo that world chess champion Magnus Carlsen once called home, claimed the overall despite recording just one race victory. But he also had five runners-up and finished in the top 10 of all but three of his starts from Dec. 1 through the end of the season.
Kilde’s results were inconsistent over the previous seasons. He has no Olympic or senior world championships medals. The next winter, with a world championships, will be key to pinning down his Olympic chances.
On the American front, giant slalom specialist Tommy Ford ended a near-three-year U.S. men’s victory drought, its longest in two decades. Another giant slalom star, 35-year-old, two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety, has not publicly said if he will continue racing after he finished 12th in the GS standings with a top result of fifth in the season opener.
Biathlon: A legend retires; an American surprises
Frenchman Martin Fourcade was the biggest name to retire from winter sports this season. His surprise announcement came on the eve of the final race of the season. Fourcade, a 31-year-old with seven Olympic medals, was a force for nearly a decade: seven straight World Cup overall titles from 2012-18, 28 world championships medals, including 13 golds, and five gold medals between the last two Olympics.
His absence clears the way for Norwegian Johannes Thingnes Bø, who began emerging as a 20-year-old in 2013 and repeated as World Cup overall champion this year. At 26, he may be en route to a Fourcade-like career.
The top two female biathletes at the PyeongChang Olympics — German Laura Dahlmeier and Slovakian Anastasiya Kuzmina — retired before the start of the season. That helped open the door for American veteran Susan Dunklee to earn a second career surprise silver medal at the world championships. She is the only American woman to earn an individual world medal. The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon for either gender. Dunklee, 34, was one of four biathletes in the field of 101 to shoot clean over 10 attempts on a windy day in Italy.
Overall, the new leading woman is Italian Dorothea Wierer, who has her own clothing line in addition to the last two World Cup overall crowns. The 29-year-old’s best individual Olympic finish between 2014 and 2018 was sixth. An female biathlete has never won an individual Olympic medal, though Karin Oberhofer is in line to be upgraded to bronze in a 2014 event due to a Russian’s doping.
Bobsled/Luge/Skeleton: A pregnancy, nationality switch and the U.S.’ one world title
Women’s bobsled brought the biggest U.S. news among the sliding sports. Two months before the season, triple Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor announced her pregnancy.
Nine days later, Canada’s two-time Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries was released to start competing for the U.S. after a harassment complaint against a coach. Humphries, married to a former U.S. bobsledder, went on to capture her third world title in what ended up being the only world championship for any U.S. athlete in the abbreviated winter sports season. There are no skiing world championships in even years, and figure skating worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus.
Germany and Russia combined to win the rest of the bobsled, luge and skeleton world titles. Most notably, Francesco Friedrich won a sixth straight two-man bobsled world title. After two-time Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger announced she would miss the season due to pregnancy, Germany failed to win an individual men’s or women’s event at luge worlds for the first time since 1993.
Freestyle Skiing: Gus Kenworthy’s switch; moguls perfection
Perhaps the biggest news of the season came off the mountain: Kenworthy, the two-time U.S. Olympian and silver medalist, announced a switch to his birth nation of Great Britain for a 2022 Olympic run. Kenworthy cited honoring his mom, who is British, and taking “a path of less resistance” to qualifying rather than enduring a series of U.S. qualifiers in slopestyle and halfpipe as he went through in 2014 and 2018. Kenworthy has noted a goal of winning his first X Games title. He should get another three chances in Aspen next January as big air is added to the Olympic program in 2022.
Elsewhere in freestyle skiing, nobody had a better season than French mogulist Perrine Laffont. Laffont, who in PyeongChang became the youngest Olympic freestyle skiing champion ever at 19, swept all six World Cups (excluding dual moguls) to nearly double her career total. She has a ways to go to match the excellence of Canadian moguls star Mikaël Kingsbury, who earned his ninth straight World Cup overall title.
Nordic Skiing: Therese Johaug dominates after missing Olympics over lip cream
The Norwegian Johaug notched 20 World Cup victories this season, 17 more than anybody else. Johaug, 31, was banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips. Johaug won two overall titles before the ban, and now she is dominating like never before and since the retirement of all-time Olympic medal leader and countrywoman Marit Bjørgen. Johaug is at 73 career World Cup wins, trailing only Bjørgen (114) on the career list for either gender.
Early in the season, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen became the first U.S. woman to wear the World Cup leader’s yellow bib, extending a recent run of milestones for the program that included its first Olympic title in the PyeongChang team sprint. Four different U.S. women made individual podiums, but none won for the first time since 2015.
Norway also scored big in ski jumping — Olympic champion Maren Lundby, 25, earned her third straight World Cup title — and Nordic combined — Jarl Magnus Riiber, 22, repeated as World Cup champion by extending his run to 23 wins in his last 27 World Cup starts in all events. Before Riiber, Norway, the all-time Winter Olympic medals leader, had not produced a Nordic combined World Cup champion in 20 years.
Snowboarding: U.S. shut out of X Games halfpipe medals in stars’ absence
Shaun White and Chloe Kim both took the season off. That made it less of a surprise when no U.S. man or woman earned a halfpipe medal at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., the first time that happened for either gender. Both White and Kim have said they plan to return — White, after ditching an Olympic skateboarding bid, at some point for a 2022 Olympic run and Kim, after freshman classes at Princeton, next season.
Two-time Olympic champion Jamie Anderson came back from a hard fall at the 2019 X Games to notch her sixth slopestyle title. Red Gerard, the surprise PyeongChang slopestyle champ, made his first X Games podium with a third-place finish.
Speed Skating: Big-name retirements, Dutch extend reign
The long-track speed skating season was bookended by retirements from decorated Americans Shani Davis and Heather Bergsma, neither of whom had competed since the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. hosted worlds at the 2002 Olympic oval in Utah, where Joey Mantia‘s 1500m bronze on the final day kept the U.S. streak alive of a medal at every worlds this millennium. The powerful Dutch were vulnerable to start the championships but finished with a flurry to top the standings again.
Short track worlds were canceled due to the coronavirus. In the World Cup season, Dutchwoman Suzanne Schulting and Korean Park Ji-Won topped the overall rankings. Schulting, 22, did so for a second straight year to back up her PyeongChang Olympic 1000m title. Park, 23, continued his ascension in the deep Korean program after ranking third overall behind two countrymen a year ago and not competing on the World Cup the two seasons before that.Follow @nbcolympictalk