BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — Mikaela Shiffrin is well on her way to succeeding Lindsey Vonn as ski racing’s next female superstar.
The men are still catching up.
There is no clear contender for the next male champion now that
Marcel Hirscher of Austria, who owns three Olympic medals and an unprecedented eight consecutive World Cup overall titles, has decided to retire at 30. A specialist in technical (giant slalom and slalom) events, he announced his retirement before this race season.
With Hirscher out of the picture as well as Norwegian speed savant Aksel Lund Svindal, who retired after last season’s World Championships, the race for next ringleader is wide open at Beaver Creek, which this weekend is hosting the world’s fastest men on skis as part of the Alpine World Cup.
“It opens up a space and what I would like to see is a more even fight between speed and tech disciplines,” said Kjetil Jansrud, a 34-year-old Norwegian speed specialist. “Now I’m getting too old, but it’s a big possibility for young guys to step up and fill that superstar role.”
Not just any skier can become a superstar, especially in speed events (downhill and super G), where races are often won by hundredths of a second.
“There’s so much depth and really, really good skiing in men’s speed, whereas on the tech side, if you’re able to make the fastest turn and know the hill well, your speed shows a little bit more and you can be winning by seconds,” said Ryan Cochran-Siegle, the only skier on the United States Men’s Alpine Team to compete in both tech and speed events on the World Cup.
It takes more than speed and skill to move into the skiing stratosphere, according to Alexis Pinturault, a strong contender from France to succeed Hirscher as men’s World Cup overall champion.
“It takes a lot of sacrifices, a lot of money, a lot of investment,” Pinturault said. “It’s a lot of investment from people around the athlete because they are spending their own time to prepare the athlete, to prepare his skill, to make him as ready as possible, and a lot of money because skiing costs a lot of money. The more money you have, it’s easier and easier.”
Some racers believe that becoming the next resounding champion is nearly impossible without a personal team of trainers, coaches and physical therapists, as Shiffrin has and as Hirscher and Vonn had for much of their careers.
“We just don’t have enough money to compete with anything like that,’’ said American speed specialist Travis Ganong. “For us, we just have to make do with what we have and if we’re competitive, it’s just that much sweeter.”
The Austrian team is naturally vying to fill the top spot that Hirscher left, but according to one of the team’s standout speed specialists, Vincent Kriechmayr, a personal entourage is not that important.
“For us super G and downhill skiers, it’s not good to be alone,” Kriechmayr said. “You’re always learning from your teammates more than your trainers. You’re pushing together. Of course, I have to be fast. I want to beat my teammates, but you’re getting faster on a good team.”
Also, as evidenced by Vonn and Svindal’s careers, champion status can be derailed by one small slip in a sport in which athletes reach speeds of 80 m.p.h. Matthias Mayer of Austria, another front-runner to become the sport’s next luminary, knows this all too well, having crashed in training earlier this week but lucky enough to walk away unscathed.
“I could be so fast and then the season is over,” Mayer said. “There are many, many fast racers here. And it’s a long season.”
The bottom line is that men’s Alpine skiing is highly competitive. An athlete like Shiffrin, who continues to slay the field in slalom, a discipline in which numerous skiers race exclusively, as well as hold court in all other disciplines (GS, super G, downhill and alpine combined), simply doesn’t exist on the men’s side.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who is in a league of their own right now,” said Bryce Bennett, an American skier. “Especially in speed, it’s so tight. I think anyone in the top 20 could podium or win.”
Dominik Paris of Italy, a speed specialist who has emerged in the top overall standings, points out that one win does not a champion make.
“I say onetime winning is easy, but the second time … that’s the difficult part,’’ he said. “The step to come to the high level is not so hard like it is to stay on this level, like Aksel did and Marcel did every year. That’s the hard part of racing.”
So, what is that special formula for getting to the top and staying there? It involves a lot more ingredients than one would think.
“It takes being in a good team setting, being on fast equipment, having the skis dialed and then also being in a good position on the start list,” Cochran-Siegle said. “On top of that, it’s having the confidence to know you don’t need to be thinking about results, you can just go out and ski.”
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