The 2018 World Cup season has come to a close and it is time to assess the field of play by deciding who won and who lost. After all, when racers reach the World Cup level it becomes about winning; they aren’t awarding participation trophies. It’s hard to look past the bright stars of the World Cup, particularly in an Olympic season. The stars did have some awe-inspiring seasons, but hopefully this is about more than winning and losing. Included are things I liked and didn’t like about the 2018 World Cup season. This list could go on forever, so let’s hear what you think deserves recognition either good or bad in 2018.
The Number 86
Let’s just take a second to recognize the magnitude of this number. I have been talking about “86” with such awe and reverence for so long that I feel like it has it’s own personality and identity. Ingemar Stenmark retired in 1989 with 86 wins, and it looks like the run for the iconic number is coming to an end soon. However, “86” survived the 2018 season and still stands tall. Lindsey Vonn is looking to blow by ol’ 86 in 2019, in its 30th year, but this record will stick with me as one of the most iconic and unapproachable numbers in all of sports. It speaks to the greatness of Vonn that she sits on the cusp of passing this immense sports number.
A moron left Mr. Hirscher off their greatest of all time list earlier this season (yes, it was me), and that oversight now seems egregious (at best). The man still cannot ski speed, but he is inarguably one of the greatest tech skiers off all-time. He won 13 races on the season, tying the all-time mark set by Ingemar Stenmark and Hermann Maier. He became the only person to win seven World Cup overall titles, and – ho hum – he won both the slalom and GS titles. He completed his resume when he finally stood on the top step of the podium at the Olympics when he won the combined, and he followed that with another gold in the GS. The only blemish on his season was an uninspired performance in the Olympic slalom, but one race does not detract from a season of excellence…All hail the king.
The G.O.A.T. may have lost a few miles per hour off her fastball, but like power pitchers who learn finesse later in their career, L.V. has learned to pick her spots and take a win. She had five wins on the season, bringing her victory total to 82, and putting Ingemar Stenmark on notice that she will get to 87. She challenged for the downhill title, only losing out to Sofia Goggia by three World Cup points, and she took bronze in the Olympic downhill. Bronze was not what she was looking for in Korea, but it was how she handled her Olympic experience that made this season a big win for Lindsey. She showed how to handle disappointment with class and humor; she was poised, funny and a great friend and teammate. She supported her team and looked out for them. The camaraderie and joy was obvious. Oh, she followed up the Olympics with a trip to the Oscars ceremony, once again raising the profile of alpine skiing with her crossover appeal.
Aksel Lund Svindal
The leader of the Norwegian men returned from injury in the 2017-18 season, and if there were any doubts, he unquestionably established himself as a freak of nature (in a good way). He finished on the podium in the first five downhill races this season, including two wins. Swiss skier Beat Feuz ended up taking the downhill title, but Svindal bird-dogged him right to the end. However, it was at the Olympics where Svindal etched his name in the season win column. I don’t remember seeing a win that felt like it was accomplished through such a force of will quite like his gold in the downhill. He’d been terrible in the training runs, he seemed a little lost with the line and just seemed a tad off as race day approached. But never ever count out Aksel Lund Svindal! The will to win has rarely been so evident – Svindal is unstoppable when he grits his teeth and goes. It still seemed like he was battling the course and maybe himself, but he found a way. Once he finished, it felt like everyone else was racing for second, it was stunning. Who knows how many more runs his knee has in him, but he was not to be denied when the gold was awarded. It just doesn’t seem fair that one man can be so sexy and so much of a bad ass.
In 2012, Mowinckel announced herself on the world stage when she dominated the Junior World Championships with two gold medals and one bronze. She followed up in 2013 with Jr. World gold and silver; the future seemed bright for the young Norwegian. Five years later, as the 2018 season commenced, the promise of youth had yet to translate to serious World Cup success. She had a sprinkling of top-10 finishes, but had yet to score a win or even a podium. 2018 changed the narrative completely, as she stood on her first World Cup podium in December when she finished third in the Val d’Isere super-G. However, it was the Olympics where she took her season and career to the next level, she won the first Norwegian women’s Olympic alpine medal since 1936, when she won silver in the GS, and for good measure she added another silver in the downhill. She won her first World Cup race after the Olympics in the Ofterschwang GS, putting an exclamation point on a break-out season. She easily has the most mellifluous name on the World Cup circuit, and we will be hearing it a lot more in the coming years.
The United States men’s tech team had a dearth of solid results in the 2018 season. They only scored seven top-ten finishes in the tech disciplines. A bright spot was Mr. Maple Syrup – RCS. In the first giant slalom of 2018, RCS was bib 49 on the first run start list…not optimal. Four months later, in his last GS of 2018, he finished 10th, right on the heels of finishing 11th in the Olympic GS. But here’s the real story – he finished third in the second run of both of those races – podium speed! He is ranked 22nd on the final World Cup Start List of 2018, with a couple of retirements and injuries he could be starting in the top 20 in the first GS of the 2019 season – striking distance for quite possibly the fastest Cochran.
There is no doubt that the parallel should be here to stay. Don’t look now, but FIS has done something positive. Although, this addition has arrived at the pace of the slowest snail. It is worrying that parallel favors bigger skiers as everyone migrates to the double gate punch, but there is no denying the excitement and fun of this event. I’m sure FIS will solve for the big guy advantage problem (FIS is known for their timely and insightful problem solving…Borat pause…not) I like Ted Ligety’s suggestion that the inside gate should be made stiffer to prevent the double punch, giving the smaller guys a chance. It would be nice if FIS would standardize the rules and make the parallel its own discipline (that is probably a 2030 initiative), but it would be really fun to see athletes competing in six parallels a season at ski areas that are close to major population centers.
Can you say second place? I know Henrik can. After the 2016 season, the World Cup circuit seemed in awe of the young Norwegian. There were whispers that he was the greatest slalom skier of all time after he won six slaloms and took the season slalom title. However, an absurd dispute with the Norwegian Federation over head-gear sponsorship seemed to sap him of momentum in 2017, and maybe rob him of Attacking Viking status. 2018 shaped up to be the year he regained form and displaced Hirscher – at least for the slalom title. Karma was having none of it, as he finished 2nd eleven times in 2018 and had few finish area meltdowns when Hirscher showed him who was boss. Marcel fell in the Olympic slalom, and the path seemed clear for Henrik to win his first gold medal and salvage a season of second places, but karma came-a-calling and he fell in the second run. It sure seems like the season may have been a tad frustrating for old Henrik.
There is no doubt that Mr. GS is getting a little long in the tooth, and there is not much more for him to accomplish in the world of alpine skiing. He is inarguably one of the greatest American skiers of all time, and he is the third best GS skier in history. He has two Olympic gold medals and 25 World Cup wins, but this season was not his best. He scored one podium just before the Olympics, and there was a feeling that he would not be denied the podium in Korea, but success did not materialize. A podium finish in the Olympics would have moved his season to the win column, but it was not meant to be. Of course, the new dad can take solace in his great family and the myriad of successful companies that have arisen in the wake of his successful career. It’s hard to argue with the big life wins.
French Men’s GS Team
A couple of season ago, the French were a force in men’s GS. In fact, the French scored a podium in every single GS of 2016, including a sweep of the podium in the final race of the season in St. Moritz. They were so good that they stacked four men in the top six of the final GS standings. 2017 saw two Frenchman in the top three in the final GS standings, and it appeared inevitable that they would take a GS title eventually. A year later, they barely snuck two men into the final top 10, and it took a late run by Victor Muffat Jeandet to slide into tenth. Oh sure, Alexis Pinturault scored a World Cup win and an Olympic bronze, but the consistent podium excellence and creative GS genius of 2016 and 2017 seemed lost in the new/old GS side cut and the passage of time.
By gosh, by golly, did we hear a lot about routine…and by extension naps this season. Routine and naps. They both have their place in race preparation, and they help a racer control their environment and nerves. What happens when there is no chance of preserving routine? What happens when jet lag is so fierce that the whole day seems like it is spend between somewhere between napping and wakefulness? Alpine skiing has always been a sport of adjustments and adaptation. Can the highly scheduled athlete adapt and overcome? What happened to the swashbuckling, risk-taking, party-all-night ski racer? Bring back Franz Klammer! Bring back Bode Miller! Bring back Anne-Marie Moser Proell! I need to see my alpine ski racers with a hangover and some swagger. I want them hoisted by crane into the start with red eyes and a grimace…then I want to see them on the top of the podium with a smile and a beer the size of Ramon Zenhausern. Where did those people go? A ski racing nation rests it’s lonely eyes on you Marco Odermatt… Just saying.
Enough is enough! We can take no more of mediocre skiing in two parts. I remember sitting in a press conference at the 2013 World Championships in which Ivica Kostelic pontificated about the art and skill of a combined win. It sounded so good as he described why the event and its purported merits should be important. He had me at combined. But as 2018 ends, I dread the day that I must watch tubby slow-twitch downhillers wend their tentative way down a slalom course, or I have to watch a scared sh**less slalom skier pizza their way down a speed course. STOP THE INSANITY. Yes, I know combined goes away in 2020, but we need it to go away now – for our mental health.
Austrian Women’s Alpine Team
Two World Cup wins in 2018, no gold medals at the Olympics and no discipline titles in 2018. Austria expects more from its ski gods and goddesses, but they were unable to produce results to match expectations in 2018. The women’s team has been riddled with injury over the last couple of seasons, but most of the team was back in action in 2018, the results did not return with them. Cornelia Huetter returned from injury and won her first race back in Lake Louise, but only found her way on the podium two more times. The tech side of the shop was worse than speed, with the women only claiming two podiums across both tech disciplines, both were earned by Bernadette Schild in slalom. Katherina Gallhuber snagging a surprise bronze medal in Korea may be the brightest spot of the season for the Austrian women. Gallhuber is only 20 years old, and it is time for the younger generation to step up and take charge.
U.S. National Championships
I remember when I was old enough to be able to go to U.S. Nationals, inspecting the men’s course while the women were racing and stopping in my tracks to watch Tamara McKinney. It was a great experience to watch one of the best skiers ply her craft. Lately, first years are not afforded the valuable experience of seeing the best in the world because the best don’t attend U.S. Nationals. U.S. alpine skiing is broken, and the fact that our best skiers can’t summon up the fortitude to appear is symptom of a much larger problem. Look around the world and the best skiers show up at their national championships because it is important to the foundation of the sport in their respective countries. Not here in the good old USA. Quite honestly, the USA needs our best skiers to show up at nationals far more than the European nations, because unlike in Europe, our young skiers never get to see these guys ski or compete against them. We have lost our way – this is an inexcusable oversight. Yes, our athletes are tired after a long winter in Europe, but this should be a non-negotiable mandate to our athletes. I guess we are just so much better than other nations that we don’t need this little boost for our ski community…oh wait, we kinda stink. Two words SHOW UP!