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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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First U.S. Nordic combined medals resonate 10 years later

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Heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics, no American had ever earned a medal in Nordic combined. The U.S. had only won one medal in each of the event’s constituent disciplines — cross-country skiing (Bill Koch in 1976) and ski jumping (Anders Haugen, who was bumped from fourth to third in the 1924 Olympics when a scoring error was discovered 50 years after the fact). 

But the U.S. team had plenty of confidence heading into Whistler Olympic Park. In the 2009 world championships, Todd Lodwick won two individual events; Bill Demong won the other.

In Whistler, with the unprecedented burden of expectations, the team delivered right out of the gate.

In a thrilling finish, with the top four separated by 1.5 seconds, 2003 world champion Johnny Spillane took silver in the normal hill event to break the medal drought. Lodwick finished just out of the medals in fourth.

Spillane would go on to take another silver in a 1-2 U.S. finish behind Demong in the other large hill event. The trio of world champions, along with Brett Camerota, added a fourth medal with a silver in the relay.

“It was a special time for our team,” Spillane said Wednesday. “We came in with high expectations. We were able to get off to a good start and carry that momentum.”

Lodwick made his Olympic debut in 1994 at age 17 and was within striking range of the Olympic podium in 2002, finishing fifth and seventh. Demong debuted in 1998. Spillane followed in 2002.

The Olympics on home snow in Park City proved to be a springboard to greater success. Lodwick kept making World Cup podiums. Demong was third in the World Cup season standings in 2008 and 2009.

“We were in a fortunate position with the Salt Lake Olympics,” Spillane said. “We had really good funding from an early age, and we got put into this development that really committed to being the best in the world.”

All three of the breakthrough U.S. athletes had some setbacks and time off. Demong and Spillane were injured. Lodwick briefly retired before coming back for 2010.

In Whistler, conditions were good, if a little warmer than ideal. In the idiosyncratic schedule that year, athletes had a nine-day wait from the first event to the relay.

The relay was important. The team had finished fourth in 2002 and was anxious to get a medal for everyone.

This time around, the U.S. finished a close second in the ski jump and would start the cross-country relay only two seconds behind Finland, with more than 30 seconds over the rest of the field. Camerota put the U.S. in first place, and Lodwick made it a two-team race with Austria. Spillane kept the U.S. in striking range. A late surge by Austria’s Mario Stecher to deny the U.S. a gold medal, but Demong comfortably crossed the line for silver.

“To finally be able to do it was really important for the team,” Spillane said. “We were able to put it together at the right time getting everyone to have a good day on the same day.”

The relay also ensured a medal for Lodwick, who had carried the flag for Nordic combined for many years. He literally carried the flag in 2014 as the U.S. flag-bearer in the opening ceremony.

The U.S. hasn’t been as successful in the mentally and physically demanding sport before or since that golden run. But the 2010 medal run has inspired younger athletes like Jasper Good, who started on the World Cup circuit as a teenager and made his Olympic debut in 2018.

“How the U.S. guys performed in 2010 had a huge impact on my excitement for the sport of Nordic combined,” Good said by email. “I vividly remember watching these events on a big projector at Olympian Hall in at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. The room was packed, and Ben (Ben Berend, another 2018 Olympian) and I had to stand on trash cans in the back of the room so that we could see what was happening. Amazing times.”

Steamboat Springs is also Spillane’s home. The Colorado resort keeps its jumps in steady use and hosts a Fourth of July event.

“It’s part of the culture here in town,” Spillane said. “The ski jumps are right downtown, so you grow up looking at them.”

With that foundation and people like Demong working with the next generation, Spillane is hopeful for the future.

“We might not see it this year or next year, but maybe 5-10 years from now,” Spillane said.

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Tara Geraghty-Moats leads Nordic combined’s flight to Olympics

Tara Geraghty-Moats
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Tara Geraghty-Moats is nearly unbeatable in an Olympic sport that isn’t yet a women’s Olympic sport.

Geraghty-Moats is the reigning Continental Cup champion in women’s Nordic combined, the sport in which athletes ski jump and then embark on a cross-country ski race. She has won all 13 of the Continental Cups she has entered. On the Grand Prix circuit, she’s 4-for-6, placing second in her debut and being disqualified in a competition in September.

The IOC’s decision to leave women’s Nordic combined out of the 2022 Olympics hasn’t deterred her from competition. She emphatically insists she’ll still be competing in 2026, when she’ll be 32 years old.

And she says this is not simply a replay of the women’s ski jumping saga, in which athletes and advocates had to lobby for many years to get recognition.

“First off, there is no lawsuit or negative media around Nordic combined,” Geraghty-Moats said. “I think the way the Nordic combined governing bodies on an international and national level are dealing with the gender equality issues should be an example to the world of how gender equality issues can be addressed and solved in a way that that everyone profits.”

The “negative media” around women’s ski jumping was plentiful at the time. FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said the sport “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Longtime IOC official Dick Pound of Canada was exasperated by women’s ski jumpers’ efforts to get a Canadian court to force the 2010 Olympics to include the sport.

Nordic combined is moving along more smoothly. Next season, the FIS will have a World Cup circuit and a world championship competition, both big steps toward Olympic status, and Geraghty-Moats says the level of competition is progressing much faster than it did in women’s ski jumping.

“The Nordic combined side of FIS seems to be more progressive and very invested in modernizing the sport as a whole,” she said.

This year, women’s Nordic combined was included for the first time in the Youth Olympic Games. Geraghty-Moats is past her junior years, but she attended as an “athlete role model,” mentoring young athletes at the Games.

Geraghty-Moats can speak with some authority on all Nordic events, having competed internationally in ski jumping in her early 20s and resuming her World Cup jumping career in 2014. She still competes in ski jumping, placing 10th in the team event in the 2019 world championships.

She has actually competed in every event on the Olympic program that includes cross-country skiing. She raced in junior cross-country events in 2012 and 2013. From 2010 to 2014, she was a biathlete, finishing 18th in the youth women’s sprint at the 2012 youth/junior world championships.

The year she started biathlon was actually a watershed moment for Nordic combined in the U.S. A golden generation of athletes earned the country’s first medals in the sport — a relay silver, two more silver medals for Johnny Spillane, and a gold medal for Bill Demong. Two-time world champion Todd Lodwick missed a medal by less than a second.

“I was personally inspired by the results, but also a little sad because at the time I didn’t think I would ever have the chance to compete in Nordic combined, purely because I was a girl,” Geraghty-Moats said.

She’s competing now.

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