American women prep for Austria’s World Cup Opener in Soelden

It’s late October, which may mean Halloween in much of the Western world. But it means only one thing in the world of ski racing; the World Cup season is about to begin.

The small village of Soelden, in the middle of the Oetztal Valley in Tyrol, Austria, will host the opening women’s World Cup giant slalom on October 25th for the seventh consecutive year and for the 16th time since 1993.

This World Cup race, which takes place on the Rettenbach Glacier, high above the steeples and bars, is one of the most demanding GS hills of the World Cup season for Women. The start sits 3040 meters above sea level and has a vertical drop of 370 m. An abrupt rollover mid-course leads to a long, steep pitch that reaches a max gradient of 65 percent, which runs out into a gradual flat that carries athletes all the way to the finish.

Fans crowd the finish area in Soelden. GEPAFans crowd the finish area in Soelden. GEPA

Where is the race won and lost? Typically, it’s been the last handful of gates at the bottom of the pitch that are the most crucial of the course. Racers who are attacking into the top of the turn and are willing to release their edges a split second earlier to risk more and carry extra speed onto the flats have reaped the rewards. They’ve been able to make up significant time on their competitors, as Lindsey Vonn proved in 2011, making up eight-tenths of a second from the last split to the finish to win the race.

Part of the Soelden excitement is the fact that all bets are off. Plenty of athletes are still tinkering with their equipment and still working on peak athletic performance. But Soelden can be the best race of the winter for some.

And winning the World Cup Opener almost always spells a solid overall GS season. Of the past seven champions on the Rettenbach Glacier, five have landed in the top three overall standings; three of those have won the GS globe. Tina Maze is the Soelden superstar, having won the race a record three times; she was also part of a historic three-way tie in 2002 with Nicole Hosp and Andrine Flemmen. Other notable past champions include Swede Anja Paerson (2004), German Martina Ertl (2003), Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister (2001) and German Katja Seizinger (1996).

Last year’s podium: Kathrin Zettel, Lara Gut, Viktoria Rebensburg.Last year’s podium: Kathrin Zettel, Lara Gut, Viktoria Rebensburg. GEPA

Last year, Swiss skier Lara Gut came charging out of the gate, winning the first of three straight races to start the season. It was the one and only GS win of her career, but kickstarted a strong season that saw her finish third in the overall standings, first in super G and fourth in GS.

The start list this year will have a bit of a different feel with the retirements of German star Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Italian GS specialist Denise Karbon, and Finnish former champion Tanja Poutiainen. Vonn, who is returning from injury, will also be notably absent, but the contenders should remain the same as last season.

Anna Fenninger, the Austrian overall and GS globe victor, finished fourth in Soelden last season and will be looking to move up to the top step of the podium this time around. Kathrin Zettel and Viktoria Rebensburg finished second and third, respectively, and are both past winners on the Rettenbach glacier course. Slovenian Olympic GS gold medalist Tina Maze will hope to bring the same form to GS that she had in 2013, when she won the opening race on her way to a record-breaking season that saw her finish with five GS victories, 11 wins overall and an astonishing 24 podiums. Swede Jessica Lindell-Vikarby will aim for her first podium on the Soelden course after strong results all last season landed her second in the GS standings. Tessa Worley, the defending world champion in GS, is coming off of a knee injury that kept her out of competition for most of last winter. She’s never finished on the podium in Soelden and may take some time to get back up to full speed.

Shiffrin charges onto the pitch on the Rettenbach Glacier. GEPA

Shiffrin charges onto the pitch on the Rettenbach Glacier. GEPA

Before 2011, the U.S. women had struggled on the challenging Soelden course with only one podium, a second by Julia Mancuso in 2007. But three years ago, the U.S. Ski Team partnered with the resort, essentially providing the athletes with a “home” to use throughout the season. In addition to benefitting from familiar and comfortable accommodations, the Americans also gained valuable training on the race hill leading up to the Soelden opener. The results were immediate, with a win by Vonn for her first-ever victory in GS.

This year, with low snow levels on the race hill, the Americans will not have the added advantage of training. But with a strong summer prep period and valuable training found elsewhere, the team hopes to add another podium result this season with Mikaela Shiffrin looking to improve upon her sixth-place finish last year.

“She had two podiums last year so we’re realistically optimistic that she has a chance to win GS’s or even the globe,” says the head women’s technical coach, Roland Pfeifer, on the season ahead for Shiffrin. “But we all in our team know there are several obstacles on that path to win the GS globe. She certainly works hard to get them out of her way.”

5.-Mancuso-2013-Bib-Draw_GEPA_Andreas_PranterJulia Mancuso participates in last year’s bib draw. GEPA

Shiffrin, who will be racing in Soelden for only the third time in her career, says she has been pleased with her skiing during the prep period and feels that her training in Europe is picking up ahead of where she left off in New Zealand. She spent a few days in Soelden training super G before heading to Saas Fee for some slalom and GS training and then returning to Soelden to prep for the race.

“I’m feeling more and more comfortable with this hill each year, not intimidated by the pitch, just ready to attack,” says Shiffrin. “I’m really looking forward to the race coming up, and I think my chances are pretty good to be in the mix and hopefully take a stab at the podium. I know I’m capable of winning a GS; it’s just about getting more consistent with my faster skiing … I’ve been working hard on my GS and I feel stronger physically, so I hope that I’ll be fast in the races!”

The U.S. women will have three total starters in the race; Shiffrin will be joined by Mancuso and independent skier Megan McJames. Mancuso will look to get back to her strong GS ways this season, after struggling to find her form most of last year.

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“She has been training a lot of GS lately,” says Pfeifer of Mancuso, adding that she had some really fast training runs at her previous camp in Switzerland with the speed team.

The excitement and buzz surrounding the opening race lies as much in the fact that it is the first race of the year as it does with seeing where athletes stack up against each other in the early-going. Last season saw defending overall champion Maze start out questionably slow with an 18th-place finish in the opener, only to regroup to take the Olympic gold medal in the event.

“It’s challenging and the season opener is always an exciting, somewhat nerve-racking time for all the athletes,” says Shiffrin of Soelden. “Sometimes girls drop off the map for no apparent reason, and other girls take over — that’s why this first race is so exciting!”

Article Tags: Alpine

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Jessica Kelley
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- A 10-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team, Kelley collected three NorAm titles, won GS silver at the 2002 World Junior Championships, and was a member of the 2007 World Championships team during her professional career. She resides in Park City, Utah, with her husband, Adam Cole.
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