Shiffrin eyes World Cup glory in Olympic year
Paris (AFP) – American skiing star Mikaela Shiffrin will kick off her bid for more World Cup dominance in Soelden on the weekend, the Austrian resort being the first stop of a season that also features the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February 2022.
Shiffrin won the overall women's World Cup title for three straight years to 2019.
But that streak ended with a horrible season marked by the sudden death of her father in February 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and a back injury as she went winless for the first time since her debut campaign, 2011-12, when she was 16.
Last season she had three wins, one in the giant slalom and two in the slalom, to take her World Cup tally to 69, which incudes one downhill and four in super-G.
Last season, Shiffrin focused on the technical events, the slalom and the giant slalom, as she rebuilt following a nightmarish 2019-20 season.
Her successful World Championships last February in Cortina d'Ampezzo, where she finished on the podium in all four of her races and won the combined, could serve as a blueprint for the February 4-20 Beijing Olympics where she could win a third consecutive gold in slalom.
But more immediately pressing is the start of the World Cup season.
"I'd be far more disappointed if I had essentially skied slow or not stacked up for any of the World Cup races, but somehow won an individual or multiple medals at the Olympics," Shiffrin said.
"Luck sways the Olympic results so much more than it does in any normal World Cup or when you look at the results for throughout an entire season."
The World Cup circuit this season includes a swing through Canada and the United States, reinstated after they were cancelled last year because of the pandemic, for the first time since the 1973-74 season.
France's Alexis Pinturault and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were crowned last season's overall World Cup winners.
Shiffrin will face a stiff challenge in the technical events not only from Vlhova but also Austrian Katharina Liensberger.
Liensberger beat Vlhova and Shiffrin to slalom gold in the world championships in Cortina by a crushing margin, going on to win parallel gold and bronze in the giant slalom.
The 24-year-old Austrian also won the season finale in Lenzerheide by 1.24 seconds ahead of Shiffrin.
The American, despite only being two years her senior, has hailed Liensberger as leading the new generation of skiers.
Either way, Shiffrin has said she wants to try to also win in speed events this season.
"Ideally, I'll be running a similar schedule to what I've had in years prior to last season, but we'll have to see how that goes," she said.
She has her sights set on the record of 86 victories, all in the slalom or giant slalom, set by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden between 1974 and 1989. Only compatriot Lindsey Vonn (82) has more in women's racing.
On the men's side, Pinturault claimed last season's overall on the back of smaller globes in the giant slalom and parallel, becoming the first French skier since Luc Alphand in 1997 to win the big globe.
Veterans Beat Feuz of Switzerland and Austrian Vincent Kriechmayr, who won a speed double at the Cortina worlds, can again be expected to trouble the podium throughout the season, with the men's stand-out downhill races coming on the latter's home snow in the famed resort of Kitzbuehel in January.
Switzerland's Marco Odermatt and Austrian Marco Schwarz will surely challenge Pinturault in his quest for a back-to-back title.
After a season with races held behind closed doors, Soelden's Rettenbach glacier, at more than 3,000 metres altitude, will again welcome the public, but following enhanced health safety protocols.
A potential headache awaits as a two-week quarantine beckons for those non-vaccinated skiers for two weekends in Canada (November 26-28, men; December 3-5, women).
"The goal is to maintain the entire World Cup calendar in all events," an official from the international ski federation (FIS) told AFP.
"If national regulations become too restrictive for entry into the country for a majority of racers, the FIS will study these case by case."
© 2021 AFP