We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: The World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, can be a strange race. Happening nearly an entire month before the next races on the calendar in Levi, Finland, Soelden can either serve as a rude wakeup call or major confidence boost to racers wondering if their efforts over the summer in the gym and on the hill are going to pay off this winter.
For the American giant slalom team, there was plenty to be happy about. Mikaela Shiffrin scored her best result in Soelden since 2016, finishing runner-up to 17-year-old Kiwi sensation, Alice Robinson, by a mere 0.06 seconds. The American men also put three racers in the top 11 with Tommy Ford in fourth, Ted Ligety in fifth, and Ryan Cochran-Siegle in 11th for the best team result of the entire men’s race.
In addition to those highlights, relative newcomer Nina O’Brien began her 2020 campaign on the right foot, finishing in a solid 21st place in the women’s race for her third career World Cup scoring result and River Radamus and Brian McLaughlin both narrowly missed getting into the second run, nearly giving the American men five top-30 finishes in the first race of the season.
“I was definitely pretty excited and happy,” O’Brien told Ski Racing Media’s Mackenzie Moran of her opening race on this week’s Tips and Tales. “To be honest, the first race of the season, I feel like everyone is a bit unsure as to how it’s going to go coming into it. Even though I felt like training had been going well, I was still unsure how it was going to stack up so I was happy and a bit relieved to see that my good skiing was showing up in a race.”
Many eyes were fixed squarely on Shiffrin to see if she could keep up her record-setting pace of wins on the World Cup. The American superstar left Austria optimistic of the year ahead even though she did admit to feeling the sting of a second-place finish after holding a first run lead.
“For sure, there’s going to be disappointment when you come through the finish after having the lead in the first run and you see the red light,” Shiffrin said in Soelden. “One of the amazing things about ski racing and about sports is every year is a different year. You just kind of have to roll with it and just see what’s possible. It’s very unpredictable and that can be nerve-racking, but I’ve started to see the beauty in that as well.”
For American GS legend Ted Ligety, his fifth place in Soelden was his best World Cup finish since the spring of 2018 when he landed in third in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. With an ailing body and his priorities shifting more towards family with his son, Jax, now two years old, Ligety is now focused solely on GS at the World Cup level, a move that looks to be paying off given his performance in Soelden.
“I was happy to be in the mix,” Ligety says. “I don’t see myself ski racing much longer if I’m not able to strive for wins and podiums so to be in the mix, one second out, is close but I definitely feel like I need to, want to, and can step up from there. It was nice to feel like I have that potential whereas last year I was just struggling with the most basic courses. The feeling is definitely there.”
After suffering a torn ACL in January of 2016, Ligety has had difficulty getting his body back into the shape that carried him to World Cup GS domination earlier in his career. Now 35, Ligety spent his summer focused on his health and now looks to train and race smarter this winter, minimizing the chances of his body breaking down on him like in years past.
“The big goal this year was to try and get the body in a place where it can handle the hard forces of the World Cup and training,” Ligety said. “It’s also about not trying to cram so many different training sessions into one day or one week so I can protect the body a little bit better. Where I am career-wise and life-wise and all that, the GS schedule is set up real nicely to be able to go back and forth between home and Europe. Jax will be two-and-a-half this winter and he’s not as easy to travel with so he’s going to stay home this winter. That Soelden trip was three weeks on the road and that’s as long as I’ll be gone for. Right now in my life, that feels like the max amount of time away.”
Although the next race of the World Cup is North of the Arctic Circle in Levi, the Americans are now licking their lips at the opportunity to show what they’re made of in front of home fans in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Killington, Vermont, where the next men’s and women’s World Cup GS races are held.
Although fairly new to the women’s calendar, Killington has fast become a classic stop on the Tour with record-setting crowds eager to see Shiffrin and her teammates perform on home snow. Shiffrin has won the slalom in Killington three years running and O’Brien scored her career first World Cup points at the venue last season.
“Killington definitely feels special and I think that’s probably true for all of us who have gotten to race there just because you finally feel like you get to share the World Cup experience with the entire East Coast ski racing community,” O’Brien says. “When you have that many people out there supporting you and all your teammates are there racing, it’s really fun and exciting and it feels more comfortable being at home in the U.S. and I think it’s definitely one of all of our favorite stops of the year.”
For the men, Beaver Creek is a special place with a lot of history for the U.S. Ski Team. Many of Ligety’s best performances have come at the venue and the Americans always seem to step up and put on a show for the home crowd in Colorado. Although the team may be riding high after a strong start to the season, they still have their work cut out for them if they are to keep the momentum rolling into the rest of the long winter.
“I always like to say that if you do well in the last race it’s not like they give you a head start in the next one,” says U.S. Men’s Head Technical Coach Forest Carey. “It’s only one of nine races so it’s good but at the same time those other nations, like the Swiss guys, are really strong skiers and will be driven by not having great performances and will be hungry. We’ll have to keep the pedal down or else we’ll be getting beat too. It feels nice for a few days but after a little bit the guys have to keep on it.”
If one thing looks to be certain in World Cup GS this season, it’s that nothing will come easily for either the men or the women. With veteran champions on both sides of the sport duking it out for top spots and fresh talent like Robinson and 19-year-old Norwegian Lucas Braathen showing stellar form so early in their careers, the American GS squad will have to bring their-A-game if they hope to stay competitive. We cannot wait to watch.