Art of combined, dearth of true all-arounder
Special to the Daily
BEAVER CREEK — At one point in professional alpine skiing, all of the top dogs were all-arounders, that is, competing successfully in every discipline.
Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Anja Paerson, Lasse Kjus, name the event — downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom or combined — those athletes could win any kind of race.
These days, you see fewer and fewer racers on the World Cup circuit attempting all five disciplines. Tina Maze, the obvious favorite in today’s alpine combined race, is the only racer in these 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships who stands a real chance at medaling in every event.
But being able to do so takes a huge amount of time and energy. Even after her gold medal in the downhill and silver in super-G, the Slovenian champion thought about making a break for it to focus more time on her marquee events, such as the token home race in Maribor that follows these World Championships.
“I was thinking, if I do downhill and super-G well, I should just go home and get ready for Maribor. But that’s just not me,” Maze said. “I think I have a chance to win more medals here so I’ll just stay to the end and take the program that it is. Of course, it’s exhausting. Other girls will have more of a chance to train slalom and GS, but I trained GS in the morning (before the downhill race and trainings), so I think I can (be competitive) in every event.”
Vast difference in skis
Ted Ligety is one racer who also competes in the full discipline program on the World Cup circuit. Although he has yet to shine as an all-arounder like Maze does, the appeal of earning enough points to one day win the overall title is what keeps him at it. When he’s able to tap into his jack-of-all-trades skills as he did to land the bronze medal in Sunday’s alpine combined race, it seems to pay off.
“The overall title is the main reason for (racing in all disciplines). Skiing in all the events helps your overall skiing,” Ligety said. “It can detract from some of your training and in-season stuff, but it’s more exciting that way. It’s too bad that the scheduling is made up so much to specialize for downhill skiers or slalom skiers. It’s not really made for somebody playing the middle, since I have five less races in my specialty than somebody like Hirscher or Jansrud. I have really fast runs here and there that keeps me in slalom … same thing in speed. It’s hard to justify not doing it.”
Even though alpine athletes are still often classified as “speed specialists” or “tech specialists,” not long ago, slalom skiers were also GS skiers and downhillers were super-G skiers. Now there is more crossover in GS and super-G and slalom is an island unto itself. Andrew Weibrecht, who gained new respect for slalom after his 22nd-place finish in the combined race on Sunday, attributes this phenomenon to changes in ski lengths.
“Slalom skis used to be 200 (centimeters). GS skis used to be 210s. Now slalom skis are 165s and GS skis are 195s. That’s a big gap. It’s a very different type of turn,” Weibrecht said. “The amount of time you need to put in to be really good at slalom … you’ve got to train all the time. Slalom is such a different event than all the others.”
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the alpine combined event. But, as Kjetil Jansrud proved with his silver medal performance Sunday, not nearly as floundering in his slalom run as many of the speed specialists, the non-slalom skiers can still make it happen. Lara Gut, disappointed in her World Championships performance so far, in spite of her bronze medal in the downhill, has high hopes for today’s combined race, even though slalom is also not her strong suit.
“I love skiing slalom but you need to work and work and work (at) it, and I already have enough to do in GS, super-G and downhill,” Gut said after her bronze medal downhill race. “I’m never going to be happy with third place. I’m really not going to be happy with 25th place. So I’m not going to start in slalom to barely be in the points.”
Becoming better skiers?
For all-around skiers, sometimes doing slalom isn’t about getting points, but simply about becoming better skiers. Many argue that any experience in one discipline can help you somehow, some way, with all of the others.
Take it from U.S. skier Tim Jitloff, who finished 17th in Sunday’s combined race but has lopped slalom off of his World Cup program to focus on super-G and GS. He will be the first to say that his experience in the tight gates has helped his speed in other events and thinks of three-time World Cup downhill champion Michael Walchhofer of Austria as the ultimate example of how this can happen.
“Michael Walchhofer used to be an unbelievable slalom skier, then he turned into the downhill champion of the world,” Jitloff said. “I learned a lot from slalom and always will. It helps me a lot with quickness across the board.”
Marcel Hirscher has the opposite sentiment. A classic tech specialist, Hirscher was thrilled to be crowned alpine combined champion on Sunday. But as “super cool” as he said it is to ski on long skis, particularly on the Birds of Prey downhill course, he wouldn’t want to add downhill to his overall program. He essentially believes that being a jack of all trades amounts to being a master of none.
“If you ski in all disciplines, you can never be good in all disciplines,” Hirscher said after his gold medal win on Sunday. “To be part of every race, maybe to be once on a podium, for me it’s better to be really good in two disciplines.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.