Skiers Make History, Join Ranks of Rarest Athletes

Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin battle for the win in GS and slalom at Aspen World Cup Finals

Mikaela Shiffrin is making history. PHOTO: U.S. Ski Team

To be among the world’s top-25 in any sport is to be in rare company. And within that elite group of athletes are fewer still that truly excel in their respective disciplines. But on the rarest of occasions, one individual, possessing a unique skill-set combined with the mental strength to break from what’s accepted or expected, can redefine the boundaries of their sport. Ted Ligety is among those athletes.

It’s said that the news is the first draft of history and as the news of this World Cup season wraps up this weekend in Aspen, a second draft of history may be written as not one but two athletes will likely join the ranks of the rarest athletes, each having displayed a unique ability to consistently distance themselves from the field; sometimes by just staying in the moment, at other times using their extraordinary athleticism, all while under pressure packed circumstances—skiing last in the second run from an eerily empty start house, all eyes in the finish arena turned up, waiting, watching. So the year ends as it began for these two racers: Austrian Marcel Hirscher and American Mikaela Shiffrin.

Since 2012, Marcel Hirscher has amassed 14 titles—six consecutive overall championships along with four titles each in GS and slalom—44 wins and 106 podiums in four disciplines.

There simply aren’t enough superlatives to assign to Hirscher’s performances. Perhaps one of his toughest competitors, Felix Neureuther (GER), sums it up best when asked about Hirscher: “Unbelievable. All the successes speak for themselves. What he does, you’ll only have it once in the history of [ski racing].”

Mikaela Shiffrin is six years younger than Hirscher—which in ski years is nearly a generation—but her story, though still evolving, is no less impressive. Consider her resume: At 16, Shiffrin won the US National slalom title—the youngest ever—and went on to climb her first World Cup podium; a third place in Leinz, Austria.

At 17 she won her first World Cup race; a slalom in Are, Sweden, and went on to win three more slalom races, including the finals, to secure her first season slalom title. Then, at 19, she was the Olympic, World Cup and world slalom champion—that’s two gold medals and a Crystal Globe.

At 20, she started the season with her first World Cup GS win, and again won the slalom world championship title—a rare three-peat of the slalom championship title. Last week, just days before her 22nd birthday and on the home turf of Squaw Valley, Shiffrin won both the GS and slalom races, secured her fourth world championship slalom title, has a shot at the GS title, and has won the season-long World Cup overall tile—in itself an extraordinary accomplishment for a tech skier.

If there is a life-lesson in that for the next generation of World Cup athletes it is this: in order to excel in ski racing you have to love skiing.

Both Hirscher and Shiffrin could make this weekend in Aspen a victory tour, but they won’t. For each of them it will unquestionably be a matter of pride to once again dig deep into their reserves and battle for the top step in both the GS and slalom events. If there is a life-lesson in that for the next generation of World Cup athletes it is this: in order to excel in ski racing you have to love skiing.

And what about the remaining top-25, have they delivered worthy performances? Certainly. Ilka Stuhec (SLO) not only filled the void on the women’s speed circuit left by the injured Lindsey Vonn (USA) and Lara Gut (SUI), she and her coach/technician mother showed that massive national team backing is not a prerequisite to winning consistently.

The Italian women’s team, particularly Sofia Goggia, displayed an attack at all costs approach that thrilled race fans and made their coaches wince. Then there was the charge of the French tech brigade—Pinturault, Faivre and Worley—as they pushed the limits of line on the GS tracks.

The US women’s speed team, who collectively in the absence of their leader, showed fortitude and courage as they fought for results throughout the season. And of course there were the attacking Vikings—Svindal, Jansrud, Kilde and Kristoffersen—who never held anything back.

Now rewind to Ted Ligety and a pattern of reinventing oneself continues to play out in the evolution of Shiffrin and Hirscher. Ligety, known as “Mr. GS” for his dominance in that discipline, changed the game by inventing a new technique. Described as ‘swoopy’, Ligety synthesized technical aspects from racers Daron Rahlves, Bode Miller and Beni Raich to create the Ligety style. Sitting out most of this season due to chronic back issues that required surgery, Ligety spoke with POWDER about the pressure of World Cup Finals, what to expect from the GS races at Aspen, and how technique continues to evolve.

World Cup Final’s has a Championship-like atmosphere to it and is where the season titles are decided. So for those with a discipline title on the line the pressure can be even bigger than an Olympic or World Championship race. It can also be a celebration of finishing off the long season. In a way, it feels like the end of the school year with everyone going his or her separate ways for the summer.

The pressure to perform at Finals depends on where the athlete stands in rankings. For those chasing a discipline or overall title or trying to finish the year in the top seed it can be the most pressure of the season. For most racers it’s the culmination of a season where they fought hard to finish in the top-25, so the pressure is off.

I haven’t had the opportunity yet to compete in a Finals on home turf. Had things turned out differently, I might have been in Aspen as a competitor. All I can do is imagine what it’s like to race at home; it must be a treat since we’re almost always the away team.

At Finals, athletes need to adjust to track conditions, which are typically raced spring-like conditions—soft, slushy, sometimes frozen—compared to the injected, hard surfaces they’re use to racing on all winter. Racers who can adjust from a frozen track in the first run to slush and ruts in the second run will do better.

(The split in GS technique this year) “Swoopy” style compared to the “straight line” is really only a matter of inches and is more of a tactic or approach than a style. Which tactic is used depends a lot on snow, terrain and course set. But the best athletes can adjust and make either approach work.

Guys like Hirscher and Pinturault can adjust and win races on any hill and in any condition, so no matter what, they will be the favorites for the GS in Aspen.

Podium picks for Aspen
GS Men
Alexis Pinturault (FRA) a threat with three wins this and his aggressive “straight line” style
Marcel Hirscher (AUT) won’t back off even with the GS, slalom and overall titles wrapped Matts Olsson (SWE) two podiums on difficult courses, tough conditions sets him up

GS Women
Tessa Worley (FRA) had a strong come-back season, will be battling Shiffrin
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) on an absolute role, could be unstoppable
Sofia Goggia (ITA) bringing momentum into the Finals

Slalom Men
Stefano Gross (ITA) athletic fighter with four top-5 slalom finishes on the year
Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR) one of the attacking Vikings, will push his limits
Marcel Hirscher (AUT) owns the tech titles and the overall, could cruise but he won’t

Slalom Women
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) will give it all to end the season with another victory
Wendy Holdener (SUI) came close in Squaw Valley, could pull it off in Aspen
Frida Hansdotter (SWE) is due for a podium

Overall Title Men
Marcel Hirscher (AUT) has clinched the overall win so the battle is for 2nd place
Alexis Pinturault (FRA) will likely outscore Jansrud in tech
Kjetil Jansrud (NOR) needed a win in the DH, now needs big tech points

Overall Title Women
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) has a substantial lead, but feeling pressure from Stuhec
Ilka Stuhec (SLO) will come close but likely fall short
Sofia Goggia (ITA) stellar second half of the season

Broadcast Times (check local listings for changes)
3/18/17 11:00 am ET Streaming NBCSports.com Men’s GS run 1
12:00 pm ET Streaming NBCSports.com Women’s SL run1
2:00 pm ET NBC World Cup Programming
6:00 pm ET NBCSN Men’s GS Women’s SL
3/19/17 11:00 am ET Streaming NBCSports.com Women’s GS run 1
12:00 pm ET Streaming NBCSports.com Men’s SL run 1
1:00 pm ET NBCSN World Cup Programming
2:00 pm ET NBCSN World Cup Programming