BEAVER CREEK — Be honest, just about everyone at the finish area on Sunday at the World Cup women’s giant slalom was rooting Sweden’s Jessica Lindell-Vikarby to fall on her keister.
Congratulations — honestly — to Lindell-Vickarby for winning the GS. And congratulations to the kid, Mikaela Shiffrin, for her first podium in this discipline with a silver medal.
That was huge for Shiffrin in so many ways. She is officially no longer a slalom specialist. Top-10 finishes — she had four in GS before Sunday — are one thing. Podiums are another.
Shiffrin clearly handled the spotlight. This was her first World Cup appearance on home snow, and judging by the red-white-and-blue hats with her name on them, she had a lot of family and friends and new “friends” here.
After teammate Julia Mancuso was a DNF during Sunday’s second run, it was all on Shiffrin to bail out the entire U.S. Women’s Ski Team during what was otherwise a grim weekend.
No pressure there, Mikaela.
We are witnessing the beginning of something very special.
Trust me, I have asked the dumb questions.
I have had the slow-motion, horrifying experience of hearing, and almost seeing, those words come out of my mouth and the ensuing silence in response which seems to last 10 or 15 minutes, but is actually only a second or two.
And that brings us to this gem on Friday, after Lara Gut conquered the Raptor downhill, when a reporter asked, “Is this win any less significant because Lindsey Vonn wasn’t competing?”
Really? Are you freaking kidding me?
That is one of the dumbest questions since someone asked Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams before Super Bowl XXII if he had been a black quarterback all his life. (Slam your head into nearest object right now.)
The World Cup — women or men — is bigger than one person. This is somewhat akin to the PGA Tour where ratings drop if Tiger Woods opts not to compete in an event. (Yes, I know I’m skating on thin ice here in my stance against all things Lindsey and Tiger.) There are still good golfers in a PGA tournament every week like Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Justin Rose.
We saw the same thing this week with the women’s World Cup. Gut, Tina Weirather, Anna Fenninger, Tina Maze and Maria Hoefl-Reisch among others all have game, people. And injuries are part of the game, as Gut, who missed the 2010 Olympics due to injury, rightly pointed out on Friday after her downhill win.
“Nobody asked Lindsey if it was different that I wasn’t at the Olympics,” Gut said, smiling. “If you win, nobody cares who was there and who was not.”
Oh, yes, Vonn
As for Vonn, it’s clear that she’s come back too early. Pat Graham, of The Associated Press, who has had the misfortune of sitting across from me all week in the press center and has been pretty much “stalking” Vonn all week, reported on Sunday that Vonn really does need surgery on her right knee after her partial tear of her ACL at Copper Mountain last month.
The thing I admire most about Vonn is her drive. As with all talented athletes, she has been touched with skills from whatever higher power in which one believes. She has accomplished everything anyone could ever do in ski racing — Olympic gold, Worlds gold, World Cup titles and World Cup wins.
She doesn’t have to do this — to ski on a bum knee to try the Olympics for the fourth time. That’s the drive that has made her great all these years.
This, though, will put her in an interesting position — underdog. Try to get used to that, Lindsey Vonn, the scrappy underdog.
Even if she were healthy, I think she might have had trouble catching Gut the way she was skiing the speed events this week. That’s not criticizing Vonn. There are just times people are in the zone, and that was Gut.
Another example is that, even if Vonn stayed healthy last season, she wouldn’t have caught Slovenia’s Tina Maze for the overall. Maze had 2,414 points last year. Vonn’s highest overall point total in a season is 1,980. Last year was just a year when everything clicked for the Slovenian.
Vonn is battling her health and circumstances, times when things aren’t going her way or are going well for others. This should be a sight to see.
And the Americans
OK, the rest of the Americans … You’d have thought the sky was falling after the speed events. Stipulated, that it was not a good weekend for the speed team. As one who as covered his fair share of high-school teams, which have been clunkers, I try to look for the bright spots. They really weren’t there for the American ladies on Friday and Saturday.
But the rush to judgment is alarming — the Americans won’t do well in the Olympics in February; the 2015 Worlds here are going to be a flop for the U.S.A.
I have seen the ugly when it comes to U.S. skiing, That was the late 90s, people, and the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships here. America’s best finish was Chad Fleischer in the super-G with a sixth-place finish. It was exciting when kids like Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves made the points. (Remember, they were kids then. Seriously, Bode was skiing tech only then.) The women had nothing. Remember that Sarah Schleper was hurt and couldn’t ski in her home town. Kristina Koznick was a DNF — twice.
The U.S. Ski Team is infinitely better-positioned for 2015. Vonn should be healthy by that point. The Shiffrin girl seems pretty good. Remember that Alice McKennis isn’t skiing yet. Of the five American speedsters who made the podium in speed events last year — a line touted early and often by the squad’s press officials — McKennis was the only one who won. She is coming back slowly, which is wise. She’s just 24. Mark down that name, people.
On the men’s side, Ted Ligety might be a contender in the GS in 2015. And do not write off Bode. Yeah, he is 36 and will be 37 for Worlds. I wrote him off at Birds of Prey in 2009, when he looked old and out of shape. He went on to win three medals in the 2010 Olympics and ended up winning the Birds of Prey downhill here in 2011.
And speaking of the gents, we’re only at halftime here at Beaver Creek. The men start training Tuesday and racing begins Friday with super-G.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 and firstname.lastname@example.org.