There should be only one lead for the women’s slalom preview: The numbers don’t lie.
In the last five years of women’s World Cup slalom, only five skiers on the start list tomorrow have reached a World Cup podium. Again, after 40 races and 120 podium opportunities in what is otherwise the most capricious discipline in alpine skiing, only five women at these 2021 world championships have reached a slalom podium: Wendy Holdener (SUI), Katharina Liensberger (AUT), Michelle Gisin (SUI), Petra Vlhova (SVK) and Mikaela Shiffrin (USA).
In the last 31 races, there have been only two winners, Shiffrin (20) and Vlhova (10), with one very recent exception. On Dec. 29, Gisin became the only skier in the field not named Petra or Mikaela to win a slalom — period. And it was the first time ANY skier – retired or injured – bested both for a victory in 1,449 days.
The dominance of Shiffrin and Vlhova is staggering, yet if we learned anything from the last days, it’s that there is always a twist. And no lead (whether it comes after first run or steers this article) is bulletproof.
I am still sweating from watching two of the most competitive and, at moments, wildly unpredictable world championship giant slalom races I have ever witnessed. Alexi Pinturault had the GS world punch-drunk and on the ropes after his first run. Then in the second, he crashed out for the first time in nearly three years of GS racing. In his wake, teammate Mathieu Faivre won, skiing to the podium for the first time in nearly two years … on a brand-new model of HEAD ski that was the brainchild of absent Americans Tommy Ford and Ted Ligety. Italy’s Luca de Aliprandini did a “Harry Houdini” to win the silver. Before today, the 30-year-old giant slalom specialist had never reached the podium in a World Cup, Olympic or World Championship event in 10 years and 91 starts. Bronze medalist Marco Schwarz of Austria had never been better than fifth in GS in his career and no better than 12th this season.
It’s the kind of stuff that will have bookies everywhere eagerly awaiting their stimulus check, though they/we might have known better from the lessons of the women’s GS just yesterday. Bib 20 is the worst rank in the modern seeding system to reach the podium in a women’s world championship GS. Yet there was Bib 19, Nina Obrien, essentially tied for the lead with eventual winner Lara Gut-Behrami before erring mere gates from the finish. (I know this because the folks in NBC’s control room slowed it down to compare their relative position just before the mistake.)
Of course, both, along with Shiffrin, would have been playing for second and third had Katharina Liensberger not slid on her side for half a gate mid-course. Liensberger would have registered her only victory in the discipline to go along with a single podium from two seasons earlier. She took bronze instead.
So wager at your own risk, but here’s what I see: Shiffrin, after her performance in the alpine combined, has once again showed her dominant back-half speed. The steeper, icier and more technical a hill gets, the more she separates herself from the field. This hill, which no one but the Italians have seen, is said to be steep-to-moderate throughout, and watered. Though we have, at times, this year seen a timid 44-time World Cup slalom winner, Shiffrin says world championship events have a way of freeing her up. It’s something she’s told her coach, Mike Day, for years, but not something he has grasped until recently. Now, he says, he thinks he gets it.
The day-in-day-out grind of fighting for a World Cup season can often have a tempering effect on her skiing. That’s been compounded this year as she navigates life without her late father, Jeff. But at championship events, she doesn’t measure; she charges, Day has observed. “And this world championship has been the biggest step she’s taken in the healing process — at least in the field of play — in the last year,” said the coach.
There is no doubt rival Petra Vlhova has noticed. Though Vlhova has had Shiffrin’s number this year, winning four out of six slalom races, she has the look of a skier trying to stave off a fade. Her run of slalom in the combined was a distant second to Shiffrin and she was 12th in the GS. The only race she’s skipped the entire season is the championship downhill. Otherwise, she’s not had a break as she follows the same diet her coach Livio Magoni fed Tina Maze in 2013. That was the year Maze set a record for the most points scored in a World Cup season while also winning three medals at worlds in Schladming. Maze has repeatedly cautioned Shiffrin never to try it, claiming it was the most exhausting experience of her career, one that might even have shortened it.
With freshness and momentum in mind, Liensberger could well be the major threat to Shiffrin extending her record four-consecutive world slalom titles — Saturday would be Shiffrin’s fifth. Liensberger tried her luck in the parallel and GS and came away with gold and bronze. The Austrian’s success at worlds is already sealed, and she can ski with a freedom not afforded to a medal-less Wendy Holdener or even a Michelle Gisin with her single bronze.
Or, for the first time in over three years and 40 races, there might be an altogether new name to win. But that, I wouldn’t bet on.