Mikaela Shiffrin in action during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Parallel Slalom on Jan. 19, 2020 in Sestriere, Italy.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin is nursing a back injury, which adds one more twist to an already unusual start to the FIS Alpine World Cup season.
The top American skiers have had to adjust to travel restrictions, new training sites and a change to the schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The season-opening Soelden World Cup giant slalom in Austria will be held one week earlier than originally scheduled, and it will begin Saturday without one of its biggest stars.
Shiffrin, a three-time overall world cup champion who hasn’t competed in nine months, withdrew from the Soelden races after tweaking her back in practice. The injury isn’t considered serious, and she wrote on social media that she’ll be “back in the start soon.”
With Shiffrin’s return temporarily on hold, the attention will turn this weekend to other American skiers as they work toward the world championships in February. And as if the new season needed any more pressure and uncertainty, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 are quickly approaching.
“We’re all excited for the year. It’s going to be an interesting one,” said Jesse Hunt, alpine director for U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “You’re going to have to watch closely because things are going to change pretty fast. It’s been one of those things where we’ve all been pretty flexible because there’s been a lot of changes already.
“So everybody’s sort of on their toes, getting ready to do what it takes to make it work. But the whole world is being challenged right now, so it’s nothing new.”
The world cup season typically includes a swing through North America, but the 2020-21 schedule was redesigned because of the pandemic. Most of the races will be held in Central Europe to limit the amount of traveling the skiers must do to get from one event to another.
Shiffrin has dominated the women’s tour in recent years, earning comparisons to retired American skiing legend Lindsey Vonn. However, Shiffrin has faced a challenging year after her father died in an accident in his home this past February.
The three-time Olympic medalist will now miss the start of the season for the first time since 2011 because of her nagging back injury. She could return for the next world cup event in mid-November in Austria.
“I think it’s just one of those things. It happens in the sport. You tweak something, and then you’re out for a little bit,” Hunt said. “You got to spend a little time getting back in shape, and you’re ready to go again.”
Downhill skier Breezy Johnson, meanwhile, has returned to form after overcoming injuries to both of her knees.
Johnson missed the 2018-19 season after tearing her right anterior cruciate ligament during a training camp with the U.S. women’s speed team. Prior to the injury, she was in the points 10 times and had four top-10 finishes in her 15 downhill and super-G starts during the 2017-18 season.
The American women will also benefit from the return of three veterans who have also dealt with injuries over the past two years — Alice McKennis, Jacqueline Wiles and Laurenne Ross.
Meanwhile, Alice Merryweather, who turned 24 on Oct. 5, is regarded as a rising star after moving up the ranks in downhill and super-G.
Hunt called Merryweather “sort of our future that’s coming up,” and she’ll have plenty of opportunities over the next two years to establish herself on the world’s stage.
“This is a world championship year for us, so obviously there’s a lot of hype around that,” Hunt said. “As we approach the Olympics, certainly there’s more interest. … So yeah, we have two big events coming up the next two years. So there will be more attention on the sport, no question.”
On the men’s side, Hunt said the Americans are strongest with their giant slalom and downhill teams.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, who’s 36 and fully recovered from a broken wrist he suffered this summer, is preparing for his 12th time racing at Soelden.
He’s concentrating on the giant slalom at this stage in his career. That’s a discipline the four-time Olympian won in 2014 in Sochi, as well as three times at the world championships.
Ryan Cochran-Siegle is considered a threat in three disciplines — the giant slalom, super-G and downhill.
At the same time, two-time Olympian Tommy Ford could garner plenty of attention this season. He earned his first world cup win when he took first in the giant slalom at the Birds of Prey event last December in Beaver Creek, Colorado.
This season should be a bit of an adjustment, though.
Hunt said the Americans skied less this summer than in years past because of travel restrictions imposed because of COVID-19.
Instead of training as usual in the Southern Hemisphere, they had to find new training sites in the U.S. They also had difficulty entering Europe, but they’ve gotten a chance lately to prepare for the season by skiing on some European glaciers.
“For sure it’s going to be a challenging year, there’s no question about that,” Hunt said. “But we’ve been able to train this summer, enough to position our teams and be ready for the opener here and ready for the season.”