|Bode Miller looks on after his run during the men's downhill at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on Feb. 9, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
With perfect timing, a heavy snowstorm pummeled the northern Alps, covering the ski slopes with much-needed snow. Although it hampered gate training on Austria’s Rettenbach Glacier, it signaled the beginning of winter — and the start of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in Soelden, Austria.
With all the Sochi and Vancouver Olympic medalists returning, the season looks promising for the U.S. alpine skiing team. They are looking to peak in February, when the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships return to home snow for the first time in 15 years. Worlds will be held in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado, Feb. 2-15.
American skiers have done well on the race courses at Beaver Creek. Since the Colorado resort began hosting the world cup annually in 2002, at least one U.S. skier has made the podium every year but one. Bode Miller and Ted Ligety have each logged four world cup wins there.
The 2014-15 world cup season will help them prepare for worlds, and it kicks off Saturday with men’s giant slalom in Soelden, where the U.S. men have a solid record. For the past 11 years, an American man has stood on the podium — winning over half (the race was canceled two years). Bode Miller won in 2003 and 2004, Ted Ligety has won the past three years and is on track for a fourth win. No skier, male or female, has won the Soelden giant slalom four times.
“I feel good about where the guys are,” said men’s head coach Sasha Rearick. “We’ve had a good training camp in Saas Fee (Switzerland), the world cup coaching staff did a good job of finding the best training in Europe. So I’m stoked with where the guys are."
Another win in Soelden will set up Ligety for a run at the overall world cup title. He finished third and fourth overall in 2013 and 2014, respectively. With Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon (Svindal finished just ahead of Ligety the past two seasons), the overall title could become a battle between Ligety and Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who’s locked up the world cup title for three straight years.
Although Ligety now has two Olympic gold medals in his trophy cabinet, along with five world championship medals (three of them gold from 2013) and six crystal globes from winning world cup giant slalom and super combined titles, he has yet to win the overall crown.
“Most ski racers would say the overall title is more important than an Olympic gold medal because it takes a season’s work instead of a day’s work,” Ligety said before the Sochi Games. “But I want to get both.”
Bode Miller, who already has two overall world cup titles (2005, 2008), is back for his 17th year on the world cup circuit. Now a geriatric 37 years old, Miller trained hard all summer, confirmed his wife, Morgan — “Nothing can keep him away from competing,” she tweeted earlier this summer.
But will he go for his sixth Olympic Games in 2018? It was a rumor that started after protective gear manufacturer Dainese stated in a press release dated Sept. 17 that Miller “already has his sights set on bringing home more hardware from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea.”
Two days later, Miller tweeted, “Ya'll are crazy if you think I'm skiing 4 more years. I was old 10 years ago.”
|Mikaela Shiffrin reacts after her first run during the women's slalom at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on Feb. 21, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
There’s no denying that the U.S. alpine team is getting long in the tooth. Ligety, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn all turned 30 in 2014. But the team has a promising youthful side led by Mikaela Shiffrin, 19, and Jared Goldberg, 23.
Shiffrin will represent the U.S. in the women’s GS at Soelden on Sunday. Shiffrin finished sixth in Soelden last year, the best finish by an American woman since Lindsey Vonn won in 2011. She hopes to show the gains she has made in giant slalom over the summer.
“I’m really looking forward to the race coming up, and I think my chances are pretty good to be in the mix and hopefully take a stab at the podium,” Shiffrin recently told Ski Racing Magazine. “I know I’m capable of winning a GS; it’s just about getting more consistent with my faster skiing … I’ve been working hard on my GS and I feel stronger physically, so I hope that I’ll be fast in the races!”
Despite TV appearances, autograph signings, sponsor visits and other demands (she unveiled “Mikaela Way” in Avon, Colorado, in September), the Olympic slalom gold medalist is still showing the joy she experiences just being in the mountains and on skis.
“Training during this #eurotrip has been soo great so far and I'm itching to race!!! #gettingcloser #sölden #countdowniskillingme,” she tweeted on Oct. 16.
After his first full year on the world cup tour — and his first Olympic Games — Goldberg should be in the mix at Soelden. He won two FIS giant slalom races in New Zealand in August.
Mancuso is also on the start list, her 11th year competing at Soelden. She last made the podium in 2007 (finishing second), and her giant slalom skiing is stronger than last season, said women’s head speed coach Stefan Abplanalp.
“We worked a lot on the basics again, to get the basics mastered. And we trained with other teams, with the Swiss and the Austrians,” he said. “And in training, she could see that she could keep up with them and even had some runs she was faster, so that was good for her confidence.”
Racing down the Rettenbach will probably seem tame for Mancuso compared to the big-wave surfing she did in Fiji in late August.
“I've been dreaming of this moment where I got to ride a mountain of water,” Mancuso recently wrote on Facebook.
Although Andrew Weibrecht is not on the Soelden start list, the speed skier spent the offseason training in New Zealand, Chile and Europe — a big change from his post-Vancouver year, which he spent rehabbing from shoulder surgery. His silver medal from the Sochi Olympic super-G now hangs alongside his Vancouver Olympic bronze medal behind the registration desk of the Mirror Lake Inn, owned by his parents in Lake Placid, New York.
|Lindsey Vonn poses for a portrait during the United States Olympic Committee/NBC Olympics promotional shoot on April 25, 2013 in West Hollywood, California.
The biggest news this season might come from the women’s speed team. First, Lindsey Vonn told The New York Times that she is aiming to compete in early December at the Lake Louise World Cup, where she has won 14 times.
With 59 world cup victories, Vonn only needs three more to tie Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll for the women’s record.
In early October, Vonn was back on snow for the first time since she reinjured her surgically repaired knee last fall. Ten days later, she was training super-G “with the crew,” she tweeted.
The crew is the women’s speed team and new head coach Abplanalp. With Vonn, the women’s speed team hopes to earn as many podium spots as it did in 2013, when all six women finished on the podium in world cup downhills or super-Gs at least once.
Abplanalp has adopted a one-team approach, reported Ski Racing Magazine. Superstars Vonn and Mancuso will train alongside younger athletes, such as Jacqueline Wiles, 22, who made her world cup and Olympic debut last season.
“It’s a little different but a good thing,” Mancuso told Ski Racing. “We have had a close coaching relationship for a while now, and it’s good to bring other energy in and also for him to be more involved with the other girls. It feels like everyone is more willing to work together.”
Everyone will hope to shine in February when the alpine skiing world descends on Vail Valley in Colorado. World championships were last held there in 1999 when many of today’s stars were still juniors. Or in Shiffrin’s case, skiing down her driveway as a 3-year-old.
Of the skiers on the A team, only Miller, then 21, raced in the 1999 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships; his best finish was eighth in slalom. No one on the U.S. Ski Team finished on the podium at the 1999 world championships.
In fact, of the three times that worlds have been hosted in the U.S. (Aspen in 1950; Vail in 1989, 1999), only Tamara McKinney has stood on the podium. In 1989, she earned a gold in combined and bronze in slalom.
The 2015 U.S. Ski Team aims to change that stat.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.