In some ways, it’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Beaver Creek and Birds of Prey hosted the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships. It feels like it’s been five years since March and the outbreak of COVID-19.
Yet some of the moments are still fresh even now, most particularly the roar of the crowd as Ted Ligety came down to win the giant slalom or Mikaela Shiffrin not reacting in the moments after she crossed the finish line of the slalom.
The 2015 championships were a rousing success for Birds of Prey and Raptor, the women’s course built for this event. The weather cooperated — except for postponing the opening women’s super-G and making what turned out to be a hilarious mess of the men’s combined.
Most importantly, from a fan’s perspective, the United States Ski Team represented itself in fine fashion. Of course, Austria led the way with five golds, three silvers and one bronze, but the USA was second with two wins, a silver and two bronzes.
For all who were here the last time Vail/Beaver Creek hosted worlds in 1999 that was quite a refreshing change. Throughout the 1999 championships, the Vail Daily ran a medal box on its front page. The Americans were conspicuously absent from said chart with Chad Fleischer’s sixth-place in the men’s downhill being their best showing.
“The Star Spangled Banner” would ring out on home snow at the 2015 championships.
Worlds come in phases and the first phase was Lindsey Vonn. The championships are awarded five years before they happen, so 2015 worlds, in some ways, were built for her as a showcase.
Of course, five years are a long time in ski racing, so a lot had happened to Vonn, most notably a catastrophic right-leg injury at 2013 worlds in Schladming, Austria. Though Vonn still had what would be a career winning 23 of her 82 World Cups after essentially breaking everything in her right knee — American teammate Ted Ligety is still sitting on 25 — she wasn’t the same.
As much Vonn fans wanted the triumphant-hero-returns ending, it wasn’t happening. After Austria’s Hannes Reichelt won the opening men’s super-G, Vonn took bronze for the ladies with Austria’s Anna Fenninger winning gold and Croatia’s Tina Maze in second.
As it turned out, Fenninger and Maze, not Vonn, were the women’s stars (with one exception in slalom). Fenninger, now known as Veith, struck gold in the super-G and giant slalom, while Maze capped her career with wins in the downhill and the combined.
Nonetheless, the first week was the Lindsey Vonn Show. Her then-boyfriend, Tiger Woods, was there to watch and he elicited roars when he was shown on the big screen in the finish area.
She took fifth in the downhill, again a good result, but not what she wanted. And to her credit she competed in the combined (DNF) and the giant slalom (14th), even through because of her injuries she had not trained GS or slalom before worlds.
Phase II was the first weekend as the men took over Birds of Prey for the downhill and the combined. Switzerland’s Patrick Kung nipped America’s Travis Ganong for the win in downhill. That was America’s first medal in a downhill at worlds since Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller went 1-2 in 2005 in Bormio, Italy.
Also in the downhill, no Austrian finished in the top 10. An Austrian ski official declared that performance to be “a national disaster.” Yes, Austria takes ski racing too seriously because, in reality, the collapse of the Hapsburgs and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was slightly more of a national disaster than not finishing in the top 10.
The good news for Austria is that it would win the next day in the combined, but in an unorthodox manner. That Sunday was a beautiful day, too beautiful.
Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud won the morning downhill, which was all well and good until the course melted. Austria’s Marcel Hirscher and Ligety finished 30th and 29th, respectively, in the downhill portion of the combined, meaning they would be the first two racers out of the flip for the slalom.
That was a huge break. Though more than 3 seconds back, Hirscher and Ligety took advantage of a firm track, soaring to surprising first- and third-place finishes, while those running later — Jansrud staggered to silver — had to ski through mush.
While the day of the men’s combined was more suited to spring break than a race held on Feb. 7, the weather would cool and more memories would be made in Week No. 2.