Sochi 2014: Women’s Alpine Skiing Preview

The winner of the Sochi games in Alpine Skiiing is someone that I do not know yet. (Christophe Pallot:Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe)
The next international skiing superstar may very well be Mikaela Shiffrin, who is looking to become the first American woman since Barbara Cochran in 1972 to win Olympic gold in the slalom. (Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe)

–by Michael A. Riley

If you’re looking for a sell job from me as to why Alpine skiing at the Sochi Games should not be missed, despite the absence of decorated American gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, you won’t find it here. Even without the sport’s cover girl, the Alpine events, which start tomorrow, easily should make up for the loss in established star power absence with what may be unprecedented depth on the slopes at any Winter Olympics. Also, Alpine skiing consistently rates as one of the most popular Olympic sports worldwide. OK, so maybe that was just a wee bit of a sell job.

For those not so well-versed, Olympic Alpine skiing consists of five different disciplines: downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G (super giant slalom) and combined. Some skiers choose to participate in only one of the disciplines, putting their eggs in the one basket of what race they perform best on the slopes. Most compete in multiple disciplines, and the very best in the sport can reach the medal stand every time they fly down the mountain.

In the last winter games in Vancouver, one of the very best was indeed Vonn, dazzling us not only by winning the gold medal in the downhill and capturing bronze in the super-G, but also with her charm and All-American, golden-girl looks. (Not everything went smooth with Vonn in Vancouver, as she crashed near the end of the super-G event amidst deteriorating weather and snow conditions, causing officials to abort fellow American and rival Julia Mancuso’s race while she was already on the course. That essentially cost Mancuso, the gold-medal favorite going into the super-G, a shot at the top prize, as her rerun left her in 18th place.) Last February, however, Vonn suffered a torn ACL, MCL, and fractured her tibia in a crash in Schlamding, Austria. After aggravating her knee injury a couple of times in her comeback, she regrouped and skied to a couple of decent finishes in events as recently as last December, but was nowhere near her old form.

American Julia Mancuso surprised many eight years ago when winning gold in Torino in the giant slalom, and hopes to pull another surprise in Sochi. (Getty Images Europe)
Julia Mancuso unexpectedly won gold in the giant slalom eight years ago in Torino, and hopes to spring another surprise while in Sochi. (Getty Images Europe)

As for Mancuso, she is decent in the downhill but her strength is really in the giant slalom and super-G. She earned the silver medal in both the downhill and the combined in Vancouver, to go along with her gold in the giant slalom in the 2006 Olympics in Torino. The 29-year-old is a threat in her fourth Olympic games, but unfortunately, she is not at the top of her game at the moment. She has had a wonderful career and should she win a medal this year, there will be many cheers of joy for one of our greatest competitors ever.

Another challenge to the already grueling schedule the skiers are on during the current World Cup season leading up the Olympics is that the course in Sochi is a whole new game for many of these competitors. This brings me to this conclusion: The Europeans are going to clean up in these games. The conditions in Vancouver favored our (North American) skiers, as we have been able to train not only in Vancouver but in many of the similar conditions found throughout the West for years. The conditions in Sochi are new to many of the skiers this year, but they are similar to other regions of Europe. Because of this, I like a handful of lesser-known women to make some noise on the slopes.

Slovenia’s Tina Maze (pronounced Mahz-uh) is a threat in any and all events. In fact, she is one of only six women to have ever won World Cup events in all five disciplines. (Vonn is also on that noteworthy list.) She has a fierce approach and flawless technique. One huge advantage for her this year is the fact that she is well-versed in the conditions the skiers look to face in Sochi. It’s the kind of course she grew up on as a child residing by the Karawanken mountain range in the northern part of Slovenia. While capable of winning a medal in any contest, look out for her especially in the giant slalom, her favorite event. She will accept nothing less than a gold medal in that event. But don’t be surprised to see the 30-year-old claim medals in the downhill and super-G to round out her illustrious career. Either way, her style is so fun to watch, so don’t miss her.

In contrast to Maze and her experience, American Mikaela Shriffin – all of 18 years of age – is the one to watch when focusing on the slalom event, and has a chance to become a household name by the time the Sochi Games comes to its coda. At last season’s World Championships in Austria, Shiffrin, then 17, captured the title in the slalom. Her performance in the World Championships was flawless, and, if you get a chance, do a YouTube search of that victory as soon as you finish reading this. She rounded out the season – and a stunning young career – with a victory in the same event in Lenzerheide, Switzerland to clinch the World Cup title in the slalom. It was a season for the ages. Also, the Olympic course in Sochi is at Rosa Khutor – 31 miles from the Black Sea – and will most likely have similar conditions to the ones in Croatia, Austria and the other areas where Mikaela has won. The teen from Vail loves it in Eastern Europe! I believe she, with Vonn’s absence and the uncertainty with Mancuso, is America’s only realistic hope for gold on the slopes. Any number of the Euros can reach the podium in this event, including Maze and Maria Höefl-Riesch of Germany (the defending Olympic champion in the slalom in the Vancouver games). But barring catastrophe, I think Mikaela wins gold and goes straight onto Wheaties boxes everywhere. After Shiffrin, I am pulling for Canada’s Marie-Michèle Gagnon to earn the silver for our great neighbors to the North. (Shout out to my relatives in Quebec!) She is more dangerous in the super combined (currently ranked first in the World Cup standings in that discipline), but is also currently in fourth place in the season standings in slalom and has momentum on her side. The rest of them can fight for the bronze.

Swiss skier Lara Gut has already set a career-high in World Cup podium finishes with six of them in 2014. (Getty Images Europe)
Swiss skier Lara Gut has already set a career-high in World Cup podium finishes with six in the 2014 season, including five first-place results. (Getty Images Europe)

In the last few years we have not been able to keep our eyes off of the elite women who compete in the downhill and Super G. With Vonn on the sidelines, we will learn more about some of the other women who fly down the mountain at 80-plus miles per hour. Höefl-Riesch leads the overall World Cup standings so far, and is looking to parlay her great season into Olympic success. She is another that is fun to watch, as she exudes athleticism and is competitive in every event. Other names to look out for in the downhill and super-G are Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, Anna Fenninger of Austria and Italy’s Elena Fanchini. Fanchini recently broke an eight-season drought of finishing on the podium in a World Cup downhill event with two third-place finishes late in 2013.

But for me, the one to catch this season is Lara Gut. (Go ahead and gaze at the picture of her above; the 23-year-old Swiss skier photographs very well.) Gut currently leads the super-G standings this season because she skis like a wild woman – but also has an abundance of control and confidence. She also is no slouch in downhill, with five career podium finishes in that discipline – including taking first place in Beaver Creek, Colorado this past November. If she can keep up the momentum and remain injury-free, my pick is Gut for gold in the downhill. And with Vonn out, Gut is definitely in play for the Super G top spot as well.

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