To describe Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and the annual World Cup races it hosts as merely “special” is almost doing it a disservice. Much like the storied men’s venues of Kitzbuehel and Wengen, Cortina conjures up a certain reverence for fans and athletes on the women’s World Cup that can really only be properly experienced in person. The imposing jagged rock spires of the Dolomites towering menacingly above the Olympia delle Tofane as the most fearless women on skis twist and turn their way down towards the valley floor at whiplash-inducing speeds is one of the most breathtaking spectacles in all of sport.
Sunday’s women’s super-G lived up to that reputation. Not only was American skiing legend, Lindsey Vonn, saying goodbye to the venue that gave her 12 of her 82 World Cup wins for the last time, her teammate and fellow legend-in-the-making, Mikaela Shiffrin, was busy setting records of her own at the host of the 2021 World Championships.
The morning inspection revealed a perfectly prepared track that required the right combination of technique and tactics if racers had their sights on the podium. As the race progressed, the Olympia dell Tofane proved to be a formidable challenge as five of the top-seeded racers before Shiffrin kicked out of the start were caught by surprise and failed to finish the turny and undulating middle section of the course.
Shiffrin, wearing bib 17 emblazoned with the bright red of discipline standings leader, eased her way into the course before turning on the afterburners where so many before her had trouble. The native Coloradan swooped her way through the shadows and rode a delicate edge through the final turns before crossing the line and unseating early leader, Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather, by only 0.16 seconds. Weirather would ultimately finish in second place after fending off a late challenge from Austria’s Tamara Tippler who rounded out the podium in third, 0.18 seconds off of Shiffrin’s pace. Shiffrin now has 54 World Cup victories to her name, tying Austrian great Hermann Maier for fifth all time.
“It’s super cool,” Shiffrin shared in the finish. “I was maybe a little bit nervous, actually, just kind of thinking that the course is tricky and a little bit more difficult than I thought from inspection. At the end when I started I was just trying to trust my line and be aggressive and I was a little bit lucky, it’s super tight and I’m lucky to be on that side of the green light.”
Despite her early nerves before her start, Shiffrin relied on her confidence in her setup to get her though the difficult sections of the course so many racers were losing time on.
“I watched a couple of girls go and thought that there were two or three points in the course where you need to be on the right direction and otherwise it’s just to be aggressive,” she added. “I was comfortable with my skis, I’m really, really comfortable on my setup so I feel like I can do whatever I want if the surface is good and today the surface was really nice. At the top, I was a little bit getting into my rhythm and then, when it got more technical, I was able to accelerate more and that was helpful.”
Weirather, by her own admission, has not had the best relationship with Cortina in the past as a spattering of nine podiums is interlaced with disappointing results. In both downhills on Friday and Saturday, Weirather only finished 17th and 33rd. Weirather’s veteran status on Tour showed on Sunday, however, as the two-time super-G crystal globe winner managed to right the ship and walk away with another podium performance.
“I think the Dolomites are the prettiest part of the whole Alps and also the most beautiful mountains in the world so it’s always amazing to get here,” Weirather shared. “I didn’t always get along with the track very well; there were a couple of years where I had real troubles. This year in downhill was super bad for me but today was amazing so Cortina always delivers all the highs and lows for me.”
Tippler, despite being a member of the dominant Austrian women’s speed team, had suffered through a disappointing start to her season with her best result before the weekend being a 12th place in the Val Gardena super-G from mid-December 2018. After a seventh and a 13th in the two Cortina downhills, the 27-year-old was poised to take the next step and stand on a World Cup podium for the first time since 2016.
“I’m very excited, very happy for our team,” she said after the race. “It’s crazy and I’m very happy about it. We’re all very fast and we push each other, it’s very cool. The start of the season was not as planned in Lake Louise so it was a little bit hard for me but in the Christmas time we had enough time for training and so I got more in shape and now it’s working.”
Following Shiffrin for the Americans was Laurenne Ross, who finished in 23rd place. Vonn and Alice Merryweather did not finish their race runs.
Before suffering yet another knee injury last November on the eve of what was to be her final season on the World Cup, Vonn was poised to become the winningest skier of all time as the American sat only four wins shy of the record of 86 set by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark — a record that has stood since 1989. Cortina paid an emotional tribute to her at Saturday night’s bib draw and fans crowded the finish area to get one last glimpse of the original “Speed Queen.” Vonn took to the slope with bib eight but ultimately could not keep up with the course, smashing through a panel for a DNF. Unhurt, Vonn made her way to the finish and was greeted with cheers and a bouquet of flowers given to her by friend and reigning Olympic and World Cup downhill champion, Italy’s Sofia Goggia, who has been sitting out the beginning of the season herself with an ankle injury.
“I haven’t quite processed everything yet,” said Vonn, her voice trembling. “I can’t seem to stop crying. It’s been a lot of great memories in Cortina and I tried to really ski my best, tried to come through the finish and make a good result for the fans here but I didn’t quite do that. It’s just hard, I thought it would be easier, honestly, but it’s not, it’s very hard. I’ve been coming here for 18 years and to have Sofia come to the finish was really huge for me, that means a lot to me. The support I’ve gotten from the other athletes, it’s more than ski racing, it’s a respect for each other and sportsmanship and what ski racing is all about and I’m lucky to have been able to experience that. I just feel really thankful that I’ve been able to do it as long as I have.”
For Shiffrin to win on a day where Vonn said goodbye to Cortina with a DNF made the mood decidedly bittersweet in the American camp. It was not long ago when many of the things being said and written about Shiffrin’s accomplishments were being expressed about Vonn. The two undoubtedly represent the best American skiing has ever seen. Sunday’s race could very likely be the last time both Vonn and Shiffrin will share a World Cup start and Shiffrin was honored to emerge victorious on such an emotional day for the Americans.
“I didn’t expect to win today but for Lindsey I can imagine that it’s really emotional,” Shiffrin shared. “She had so many amazing races here and also some really difficult races here. For it to be the last time she’s in Cortina racing, I imagine everything she’s going through; so many memories, so many things to look back on and it’s like a reflection of her entire career. The fans are coming out here and cheering for her and they don’t care if she wins, they just want to see her again. So in that way I also think it’s happy memories.”
The future remains unclear for Vonn as consistent pain in her knees may prove to be too much to continue. Originally planning to race through the remainder of the season, going for broke in pursuit of Stenmark’s record, Vonn expressed doubt that she would be able to continue given the pain she has to ski through on a daily basis. The next women’s races are in Garmisch, Germany, another venue where Vonn has enjoyed tremendous success throughout her career.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to Garmisch,” she said through tears. “I’m not sure if I can keep going. I just need to really think things through the next few days and make some hard decisions.”
The women now head to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for downhill and super-G races January 24-27.
1. Mikaela Shiffrin (USA)- Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
2. Tina Weirather (LIE)- Head/Head/Head
3. Tamara Tippler (AUT)- Salomon/Salomon/Salomon
4. Valerie Grenier (CAN)- Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
5. Jasmine Flury (SUI)- Stoeckli/Lange
6. Wendy Holdener (SUI)- Head/Head/Head
7. Kajsa Vickhoff Lie (NOR)- Head/Head/Head
7. Ragnhild Mowinckel (NOR)- Head/Head/Head
9. Stephanie Venier (AUT)- Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
9. Viktoria Rebensburg (GER)- Stoeckli/Lange
For complete FIS results, please click here.