Shiffrin in prime position for closing stretch
As the World Cup turns into its home stretch — and, in this case the home stretch is on home snow this week in Squaw Valley, California, followed by next week’s World Cup Finals in Aspen — we could be seeing a coronation for Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin.
Even by Shiffrin-esque — is that a word? — standards, the 2016-17 season has been a stunning success. She has won a career-high nine times to date on the World Cup tour, pushing her career total to 29.
And, by the arcane rules of the World Cup, those nine wins do not include her third straight slalom gold medal at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as well has her first medal (silver) in the giant slalom at that marquee event.
Come Saturday’s slalom at Squaw, Shiffrin, who turns 22 on Monday, could clinch her fourth World Cup slalom title in five years and is the favorite to wrap up the overall World Cup crown next week in Aspen.
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When it comes to the slalom title, all Shiffrin really needs to do is not fall off the chairlift at Squaw Valley, which is hosting the World Cup for the first time since 1969, or next week in Aspen.
Shiffrin leads Slovakia’s Veronika Velez Zuzulova, 660-515, in the slalom standings with two races left in the season. With race wins worth 100 points, Shiffrin has, in American sports parlance, a one-and-a-half game lead with two to play.
If Shiffrin finishes third or better on Saturday, that clinches the title, regardless of what Zuzulova does. To put the probability of this scenario into perspective, in Shiffrin’s last 18 World Cup slalom starts, she has won 15 times, had two third-place finishes and only one DNF, a run dating back Dec. 29, 2014.
Even if Shiffrin finishes as a DNF, or out of the points, something with has only happened twice in her last 34 slalom starts — 37 if one includes the pressure cookers of her three Worlds appearances — dating back to Dec. 29, 2012, she would still have a 35-point lead on Zuzlova, going into Aspen.
Corks should be popped on Saturday.
Madame Shiffrin is also in excellent shape to clinch her first overall World Cup globe. Shiffrin leads the circuit with 1,323 points, followed by Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec (1,145) and Italy’s Sofia Goggia (1,021). Stuhec is closer to Shiffrin, but hasn’t raced in a tech event since Jan. 8 and has competed in only four giant-slalom or slalom races all season. Were Stuhec not to compete in GS and slalom this week, she would not be eligible for next week’s tech events at the World Cup Finals, where only the top 25 in points in each discipline for the season race.
That means the maximum point total Stuhec could reach with be 1,345, were she to win both the downhill and super-G next week in Aspen. In that rosiest of hypotheticals, if Stuhec doesn’t compete this week in Squaw Valley’s tech, all Shiffrin essentially needs to do this weekend is score 23 points to eliminate Stuhec. (An 11th-place finish, by no means an unachievable result, in either Friday’s GS or Saturday’s slalom would be 24 points for Shiffrin.)
Goggia is more of threat, though she is further behind. Not only is the Italian coming off two speed wins in Korea last week, but Goggia is in the top 25 in points in three disciplines, downhill, super-G and GS.
Were Goggia to sweep her final five races — an unlikely scenario — she would be at 1,521 points, not a huge lead over Shiffrin (1,321), who would still have four races — two GS and two slalom — to overcome that 200-point deficit.
If Shiffrin skis like Shiffrin this week in Squaw Valley, then she will likely all but clinch the overall with the formal coronation coming in Aspen next week.
Still good at slalom
It’s hard to conceive of momentum carrying over the summer to a next season, but Shiffrin certainly seems to have accomplished that feat from 2015-16 to 2016-17.
Toward the end of the 2015 calendar year, Shiffrin did her knee during training. Such injuries are commonplace in the sport, but her speedy return and ensuing success was not.
Shiffrin came back nearly two months later on Feb. 15, 2016 winning a slalom in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and didn’t stop winning for a long time, for nearly 11 months.
Shiffrin won seven straight World Cup slaloms, one short of a record, before DNF-ing on Jan. 3 of this year in Zagreb, Croatia. As if to affirm that she is simply the best in the world in slalom, she won her third Worlds gold in the discipline in February— this time by 1.64 seconds.
She has also started to bloom in GS. Shiffrin is a legitimate threat for the giant slalom World Cup championship in future years. Second in the points behind France’s Tessa Worley, Shiffrin will likely finish second this season. Two of her nine wins during this campaign are in GS, both in Semmering, Austria, just after Christmas. And, yes, she won silver behind Worley at Worlds as well, another goal achieved.
Need for speed
While Shiffrin could likely take the Marcel Hirscher path — the Austrian has won his record sixth World Cup championship by specializing in GS and slalom — to an overall title, she is starting to branch out into speed.
She was in the points with 18th- and 13th-place finishes in downhills in Lake Louise, Alberta back in December. She’s started three super-G races, including a fourth-place result in Cortina, Italy, on Jan. 29.
But perhaps the most startling development was winning last month’s combined — in this case, a downhill and a slalom — in Crans-Montana last month. Shiffrin did more than just stay within hailing distance of the leaders after the downhill. She finished seventh in the downhill leg, which would be an outstanding result, even if there weren’t a slalom following that race.
As it was, she trailed by only 1.3 seconds, going into the slalom, and ended up winning the combined by 0.7 seconds.
Shiffrin has picked up 203 points in the pursuit of her overall World Cup championship. In a related development, she leads Stuhec, 1,323-1,145, going into this week’s action at Squaw Valley.
That speed development adds more promise to an already brilliant career, which could reach new milestones as early as this week.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, email@example.com and @cfreud.