Mikaela Shiffrin’s wins, China’s debut set to star in upcoming Alpine ski season
The Associated Press
ZURICH — While Mikaela Shiffrin is the expected superstar of a new Alpine ski season, China’s debut race can be the surprise success.
The World Cup record book is at Shiffrin’s mercy before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics based on the pace of her 17 wins last season.
Skiing looks to the American star in a season without a major championship, and after three of its four biggest names retired.
There’s no Lindsey Vonn, no Marcel Hirscher, no Aksel Lund Svindal — all Olympic and overall World Cup champions.
“Three names in that category is a big loss,” acknowledged Atle Skaardal, who as women’s race director watched Vonn’s great career and Shiffrin’s emergence.
“We are confident that new names will step up,” Skaardal told The Associated Press at a World Cup pre-season meeting Friday. “The sport is bigger than a single person.”
The World Cup circuit takes a leap forward by going to China for the first time in its 53-year history.
Expectations were initially not high for an Olympic downhill course 90 kilometers (55 miles) from Beijing. The area has few mountains and little natural snow.
“I think we are going to see the ski world will be surprised,” said Bernhard Russi, the master architect of Olympic slopes and the 1972 downhill gold medalist in Japan.
The men’s races at Yanqing in February will be a highlight of a season starting Oct. 26 in Soelden, Austria.
Shiffrin’s 2018-19 season was remarkable. Her third straight overall World Cup title was a procession of 17 wins in 26 races. She added two gold medals and a bronze at the biennial world championships.
Only careful management of Shiffrin’s race schedule saved the all-time World Cup points record set by Tina Maze in 2014. That 2,414 tally seems within sight in a 42-race schedule.
Still, it’s not her main target, the U.S. team’s Alpine director Jesse Hunt told The AP. “Her goal is to win races, and she is comfortable with the workload.”
Shiffrin now has 60 World Cup wins, fifth most all-time. It’s likely only Vonn (82) and Ingmar Stenmark (86) will be left to chase next season.
Greatness is best seen in a rivalry, and Shiffrin now has that with Petra Vlhova.
The Slovak racer, aged 24 like Shiffrin, won five World Cup races last season and took three medals home from the worlds, including giant slalom gold.
“I think it’s a very healthy one,” Skaardal said of their duel. “They have a huge respect for each other.”
Men’s skiing had the same World Cup champion for eight seasons. Hirscher opted last month to stop in peak condition at age 30 to enjoy family life in Austria.
The two rivals who most often shared Hirscher’s slalom and giant slalom podiums start favored to succeed him.
Alexis Pinturault and Henrik Kristoffersen are suited by a 46-event World Cup program weighted against speed racers.
Pinturault posted a video message to Hirscher last month, acknowledging: “Because of you and thanks to you I became a much better athlete.”
The 28-year-old Frenchman has prepared with the kind of bigger entourage designed for a champion.
“He has to have a good start to the season,” said Didier Defago, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion, who predicts the same extra pressure on Kristoffersen now both are expected to achieve more.
With 12 men’s slaloms, Pinturault could be denied points by his teammate Clement Noel, part of a taller new generation of racers.
Noel, the 2018 junior world champion, won three times last season.
Swiss prospect Marco Odermatt won three junior world titles in 2018, and was on the podium at two World Cup giant slaloms in March.
Another junior world champion, Alice Robinson of New Zealand, was 17 when finishing runner-up to Shiffrin at the final World Cup giant slalom in March.
With Vonn retired and Laurenne Ross taking a year off after injuries, the U.S. gets two healthy racers back in the speed team.
Alice McKennis, third in her previous downhill 18 months ago, and Jacqueline Wiles both missed last season, U.S. Alpine director Jesse Hunt noted.
Veteran Ted Ligety will help mentor a men’s roster getting overdue reinforcement in technical races.
River Radamus and Luke Winters, junior world medalists who have won on the second-tier North American circuit, are tabbed to step up.
“They need to make that jump this year,” said Hunt, targeting top-15 finishes initially.
In downhill, Bryce Bennett is aiming for the podium after a run of top-5 places.
LACK OF SPEED
The International Ski Federation is concerned about too few racers in women’s World Cup downhills. The problem runs deeper in youth racing.
Women’s race director Peter Gerdol, in his debut season, aims for fewer injuries on safer courses.
Race organizers will cut the height and length of jumps — “to let the racers get a little bit more confident. Then we can build it up again,” Gerdol said.
Some thought China’s 2022 Olympics bid was a test for the 2026 campaign.
Instead, European candidates melted away and Beijing is now less than 2 ½ years from hosting.
Artificial snow will start to be sprayed next month on the slope staging men’s downhill and super-G World Cup races on Feb. 15-16.
A second Olympic slope, being built nearby for slalom and giant slalom, is still “a construction site” this season, Skaardal said.
Defago, the assistant to course designer Russi, describes a challenging course with “four big jumps, two steep parts, a dramatic passage at the end.”
It should time at around 1 minute, 55 seconds and be more testing like the 2014 Sochi Olympic course than the 2018 one in Pyeongchang.
The women have their speed test races at Yanqing in 2021.