World Cup Finals return to U.S. for first time since 1997
The women of the U.S. Ski Team know plenty abut Aspen, as its long been a regular stop on the World Cup circuit for the ladies. This winter, however, will bring something even more special.
“It will be a different Aspen than what we are used to, for sure,” said Paul Kristofic, the second-year head coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine ski team. “It’s really something unique and special for us, and everyone is really looking forward to it. To be able to finish off the World Cup at home and in the U.S., and in such a special place like Aspen, everyone is excited about it.”
Instead of its Winternational World Cup event held each November, Aspen will host the 2017 Audi FIS World Cup Finals in March, the first time the season finale has been held in the United States since Vail hosted the event in 1997.
It’s being called “The Return of America’s Downhill.”
While Aspen has been a recent circuit stop for the women, it hasn’t hosted the World Cup men since 2001. That year, a young American named Bode Miller claimed only his second World Cup podium in a slalom event.
“Getting back there, it’s something they all saw as kids,” Sasha Rearick, the longtime head coach of the men’s U.S. Ski Team, said about the younger generation of American skiers. “As an organization, we are super excited about it. There are a lot of things on the guys’ minds, but the biggest thing is the excitement of being able to celebrate the sport together with our fan base, back in America, on America’s Downhill.”
Outside of the enormity and pressure of it being the finals — the top 30 men and women per discipline qualify — March’s event in Aspen will feel different because of timing. In November, when Aspen would usually host its World Cup races, the weather is typically much darker and colder; the ski runs icier and faster.
In March, with the possibility of springlike weather beginning to take hold and the sunny days leading to softer snow, Aspen Mountain won’t have the same speed that World Cup skiers expect.
“We’ll get different snow conditions than what we are used to in late November,” Kristofic said. “It won’t be that really aggressive snow that we are used to at the end of November, but it will be a spectacular venue. We expect to have great home support and a good crowd and a lot of excitement around the event.”
Vonn, Shiffrin again frontrunners for overall women’s title
While anything can happen between October’s World Cup opener in Austria and March’s finals — such as Lindsey Vonn breaking her arm while training at Copper Mountain, for example — it’s expected there will be plenty of familiar faces competing for the U.S. come the finale in Aspen.
For the women, Mikaela Shiffrin is expected to once again contend for just about everything this winter. At the start of the season, Lindsey Vonn, a four-time overall World Cup champion and the reigning downhill champion, seemed poised to compete aggressively this season. But Vonn, considered the most successful female in World Cup ski racing with 76 World Cup wins as of November, suffered a setback when she broke her arm during a training run on Copper Mountain in early November.
Vonn finished second overall to Switzerland’s Lara Gut last season despite missing the last three weeks because of a knee injury.
“I had successful surgery (Nov. 10) in Vail and everyone took great care of me,” Vonn said in a Facebook post on Nov. 11. “While I am beyond frustrated by this latest setback, at least my knees are OK and I will return to the slopes as soon as possible, as I always do! Thank you for the continued love and support, it means so much to me.”
Shiffrin, who missed more than two months last season with her own knee injury, dominated the slalom events and eventually finished tied for 10th overall last season.
Shiffrin, known for her technical skills, plans to put more emphasis on speed events this season to compete for the overall World Cup title. She started off the 2016-17 season with a slalom win in Levi, Finland.
“Lindsey will for sure be a big story,” Kristofic said before she broke her arm. “There are a number of girls to watch for that will make stories. Certainly the headlines will always be about the biggest stars, and Lindsey and Mikaela are those two athletes right now.”
Kristofic said to also keep an eye on Oregon’s Laurenne Ross, who finished eighth in the super-G last season; New Castle’s Alice McKennis, another speedster who has trained with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club; and California’s Stacey Cook, yet another strong downhill skier.
Men’s downhill team hopes to make waves
The U.S. men also looked strong in the speed events heading into the 2016-17 season, led by the trio of Steven Nyman, Andrew Weibrecht and Travis Ganong.
“We’ve got a great downhill team right now,” Rearick said. “They’ve done well and prepared well, and we are looking forward to a good season with those guys.”
Nyman led the U.S. by finishing 20th overall in the World Cup last season and sixth in the downhill. Weibrecht was 22nd overall and eighth in the super-G, while Ganong was 25th overall and 11th in the downhill.
On the technical side, the return of five-time giant slalom champion Ted Ligety should be a big boost for the Americans. Ligety saw his season end early last winter with a knee injury, but looked strong and ready to return to the GS throne prior to the season-opening events in Austria.
Also returning for the men is Miller. The New Hampshire native turned 39 in October and sat out the entire 2015-16 season after recovering from injuries. One of the all-time American greats — he is a two-time overall World Cup champion (2005, 2008) and five-time Olympian — Miller announced a comeback bid this winter.
“The love of the sport and the way he goes out and pushes was great to see,” Rearick said of Miller, who trained with the team in Chile in September. “He’s still got that kid fire in him to want to go fast. Between that and experience, he still could do some good things.”
The World Cup Finals will be held March 15 to 19 at Aspen Mountain.