Skiing

Feeling 22, and everything is so all right

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The American racer Mikaela Shiffrin on Friday clinched enough points to win the fancy crystal globe that goes to the alpine World Cup tour’s best overall female skier.

She becomes just the third American to win the season title. Tamara McKinney won it in 1983. Lindsey Vonn has won four big globes, as they like to call it on the tour, most recently in 2012. Now comes Mikaela Shiffrin, who just this past Monday turned 22.

Taylor Swift could not have put it any better. Everything will be so all right.

This is the stuff of compelling cross-over stardom.

Mikaela Shiffrin is already an Olympic champion, the heavy favorite to win again at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in not just one but perhaps three events — slalom, giant slalom and combined — and already so much more, the rare athlete who not only has a calm and a presence about her but, at 22, understands who she is, what she is doing and why.

It’s elemental.

Mikaela Shiffrin is who she is because she loves it, and passionately.

She loves every bit of it. She can take that passion and distill it into a killer work ethic and uncompromising want-to.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you forge the sort of great champion who, come Winter Games-time, makes for must-see TV.

Unlike the schedule at most Winter Olympics, at Sochi in 2014, for instance, when the so-called technical events ran near the back end of the 17 days, in Pyeongchang next February, guess what goes off on Day 2? Women’s giant slalom. Day 4? Women’s slalom.

Why? This missive from the Department of the Obvious: Mikaela Shiffrin.

Here is the thing that separates someone like Shiffrin from the rest of almost everyone else on skis.

For her, the racing is the fun part. For real. In the start gate, the mission is not just to see if she can be good but to see how good she can be.

Nervous? Like, why?

Why be nervous, why have a thought bubble full of anxious reminders cluttering your mind, when you have done everything you can possibly do to put yourself in the best position you can be?

For Mikaela Shiffrin, there are no shortcuts. She loves the training, the hours upon hours in the gym, the repetitions in the weight room and on the icy snow, the attention to detail, all the stuff that doesn’t get reflected in the photo snaps, what our 24/7 what-now culture demands, the pics that flash across the globe in milliseconds of a winning smile and a fancy crystal globe.

“I am always at my best,” she said, calmly, evenly, “when I get good preparation and I feel strong.”

That simple, that elemental, and Mikaela Shiffrin’s 2017 overall win marks an intriguing moment if, like most Americans, you are just checking in on what’s what in alpine skiing.

Alpine racing is, generally speaking, divided into two kinds — the technical events and the speed races.

When most casual fans think alpine, they think speed, something like Robert Redford in “Downhill Racer,” which goes all the way back to 1969. (Warren Miller's love sonnets on film to the sport do not count for the casual fan.)

Making this easy:

The speed events are the downhill and the super-G.

Downhill: spitballing it here, you see how fast you can get down the mountain. There are gates, but whatever— the main thing is the speed, like 80 miles per hour, which is a lot on a freeway in a car made significantly of metal and other durable parts, much less on skis chattering down a river of ice. A world-class course runs to two minutes. Try to imagine it: ice (it's ice, not fluffy snow), 80 mph, two minutes, skis, yikes.

Super-G, same general idea but some widely set gates and the course is set lower down the mountain, meaning it's shorter.

The tech events, on the other hand, are the twisty, turning ones, the ones with all the gates close together.

Making this easy, again:

Per someone clever, those tech events, the giant slalom and slalom, will be coming to your living room early in the 2018 Olympic run.

A fifth alpine event, the combined, is just what it sounds like, one speed event and one tech, say a super-G and a slalom. You add the times of those two races together, lowest total wins.

On the men’s side, an Austrian racer, Marcel Hirscher, has won the World Cup overall title six seasons running — 2012 through 2017.

Hirscher is a tech specialist, the king of slalom and in the 2015 and 2017 seasons, giant slalom, too.

Compare that to the American standout Bode Miller, a five-event skier who won the overall title in 2005 and 2008.

Shiffrin is a tech specialist, too. She is the Sochi 2014 slalom gold medalist. She is the World Cup slalom winner for the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 seasons. (She spent two months away from racing during the 2016 season after a fall.)

Compare that to Vonn, the German Maria Höfl-Riesch (2011 overall winner), the Slovenian Tina Maze (Sochi 2014 downhill and giant slalom champ, showing her versatility, and 2013 World Cup overall winner with an otherworldly 2,414 points, breaking the legendary Austrian hammer Hermann Maier’s record of 2,000, set in 2000).

All three of these women: four- or five-event racers.

Would Shiffrin this season have been competing in more speed events if the Swiss racer Lara Gut, the 2016 overall champ, had not, in a Feb. 10 warm-up at the world championships, torn an ACL?

If, similarly, the Austrian Anna Veith was not coming back from injury? Before she got married, she was Anna Fenninger — the name by which she won Olympic gold in 2014 in the super-G and, moreover, won the big globe in 2015 and 2014.

Heading into the weekend’s racing in Aspen, Shiffrin stood at 1,523 points. No matter what happens, she can’t come within a canyon of Maze’s 2,414. Does that matter, even a little? Gut had 1,522 in winning last season. Shiffrin already is better. Again, does that matter, even remotely?

Questions without answers and, anyway, it’s not as if Shiffrin can’t ski speed.

Shiffrin did, after all, win a combined this season, in late February, in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, and it’s for sure the case that as she goes and grows, all involved expect Shiffrin will do more speed.

A comparison: when Michael Phelps was a much younger swimmer, his coach, Bob Bowman, would allow him only to swim distance. As he grew into his ability, Bowman saw to it that Phelps broadened his repertoire.

Same general idea with Shiffrin.

The thing is, she and her team have a plan, and what Shiffrin and her team do, and exceedingly well, is develop and execute that plan.

As Julia Mancuso, the American skier who is herself a four-time Olympic medalist, including a gold from the Torino 2006 Games, said, “If it isn’t broke, why fix it? That’s their mindset.”

Mancuso added, “It takes a lot of strength to not deviate from that plan as well.”

Ski racing is full of numbers — so many it can become numbing — but just consider a handful.

Before this weekend’s races, Shiffrin had stood in the start gate 103 times. She had produced 31 wins and 43 podiums.

As Patrick Riml, the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director, put it, “Her strike rate is unbelievable.”

It is often said that hitting a major-league curve ball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Those who say that have never stood in the start gate of a World Cup course and looked at the gates and the ice. Shiffrin’s win rate would make her, in baseball terms, an All-Star, a .300 hitter. Her podium rate puts her in Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams category.

Long-range: Vonn has 77 World Cup victories. Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark has the most, 86.

“Kudos to [parents] Jeff and Eileen for teaching Mikaela what it takes,” Riml said.

“Look,” he said, “everyone who skis the World Cup has talent. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there.

“Who wants it? Who wants it bad enough? Who wants it bad enough on race day?

“You can see it,” he said, “from the start gate,” and indeed you can.

Mikaela Shiffrin wants it. And she is feeling every bit of 22.

Lindsey Vonn's first next chapter

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It was long ago the case that Lindsey Vonn became the best alpine skier the United States ever produced. Now, as this season’s racing draws to a close, with Vonn on a not-really-100 percent right knee, she has written a fascinating first next chapter to the ongoing story that is her singular career.

The day after clinching this season’s World Cup downhill title, Vonn won the super-G crystal globe, too. In all, she now has 19 globes, the same as Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark.

“I am honored to even be in the same sentence as him,” she said afterward in Meribel, France.

Lindsey Vonn with her downhill and super-G World Cup crystal globes // photo Getty Images

Vonn won the super-G title after finishing Thursday’s race 49-hundredths of a second ahead of Austria’s Anna Fenninger.

Fenninger, racing with bib 15, had come down into first place with a time of 1:08.19.

Vonn raced 19th. By the second interval, it was clear she was on her game, up 41-hundredths. By the finish line, after navigating a tricky jump, the margin was up to that 49-hundredths.

The downhill win Wednesday was Vonn’s 66th career victory, the super-G her 67th. Stenmark has 86. Vonn’s plan is to race through the 2018 season, and the Winter Games in South Korea.

Vonn also said, “It’s nice to know I can still win titles,” particularly when there were so many doubters this season, and of course there were.

Vonn blew out the right knee in a super-G at the 2013 world championships in Schladming, Austria. Trying to make the Sochi Olympics, she hurt the same knee again; she did not ski in the 2014 Games.

By the time she came back to the tour, as she recounted Thursday, she had maybe five days of downhill training, perhaps 20 days of training overall.

There were doubters, but only because those who doubt don’t understand that even when Lindsey Vonn is not 100 percent physically right she is 110 percent mentally tough.

She belongs to a special category of athlete.

It is always risky to go here, to say that so-and-so is different from someone — or everyone — else.

But the evidence is irrefutable.

Vonn’s knee is still not, well, right. You saw it at the world championships last month in Beaver Creek, Colorado, when the course was ridiculously hard and icy, and — for her — she struggled, managing “only” to win one medal, a bronze in the super-G.

She alluded to that Thursday, saying that she now will have all summer to get stronger and that the spring snow conditions in Europe the past couple weeks have been easier on her body:

“The soft snow is really nice. It’s really forgiving on my knee. It feels good. It haven’t had any problems since Beaver Creek. It’s only when it’s icy that I run into problems.”

Where you really heard her open up, meanwhile, is in the way she talked about attacking the course in the way that many racers say they do but she actually then does consistently:

“I am going to risk it all every time I am in the starting gate. That is what makes me fast.”

This is why Lindsey Vonn is the greatest of all time. In response to a question Thursday about whether she was still as fearless as she was before wrecking her knee, she said, yes, and that some of her “poor results” this year were because she “risked too much” or didn’t ski with “the same strength and power.”

She is self-reflective enough to know what can be seen at the bottom of the hill, too: her super-G is probably better now but her downhill, even for her, can be better. “I’m not building pressure at the top of the turn like I can,” she said of her downhilling.

All that, obviously, can and will change with a full summer of training.

What’s also going to change is that she is going to get even better — tougher still — mentally.

The best athletes do this, and she will.

She said Thursday that chasing records has been one of her faults.

Everyone in ski circles, especially Vonn, knew that Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll held the record for most World Cup wins by a female racer, 62, until Vonn broke it earlier this season.

Now Vonn is being asked about 86. The math says that if she keeps winning eight races per season, like she did this year, it’s a done deal.

But. as she said on a call with reporters, “”That’s a lot easier said than done,” adding, “I don’t really look at that as a goal right now. My goal is to keep winning races and keep getting as many titles as I can.”

Her mom, Linda, was on that call, and said at the end of it, “It seems like old times, Lindsey.”

Yes, but there’s a lot more yet to be written.

“I’ll call you later,” Lindsey said to her mom. “I love you.”

Second race back: Lindsey Vonn wins

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Lindsey Vonn won Saturday. Improbably, maybe, but only if you don’t know Lindsey Vonn, who is as mentally tough as they come. That she won is good -- obviously -- for her. Better, it’s good for the U.S. team, for alpine skiing and for Olympic sports, because the Olympic world needs stars and Lindsey Vonn is a big star, arguably the biggest in all of winter sports, even though she didn’t even ski at the Sochi Olympics.

For her to be back — it’s just good all around. That’s reality.

Lindsey Vonn, flanked by Stacey Cook, left, and Julia Mancuso on the podium after the Lake Louise downhill // photo Getty Images

Vonn won a World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Canada — a course on which she has won so many times in recent seasons it has been dubbed “Lake Lindsey.”

Her victory capped a 1-2-3 U.S. finish, with Stacey Cook taking second and Julia Mancuso third, the first-ever U.S. Ski Team podium sweep, men’s or women’s. It marked the best finish in two seasons for all three.

The last nation to sweep a women’s World Cup podium: Austria, 2009.

For Vonn, Saturday’s race was only her second start since knee surgery last January knocked her out of the Sochi Games.

Every day has gotten better here,” she said after winning by 49-hundredths of a second. Mancuso finished 57-hundredths back.

“Today,” Vonn added, “I went a little bit more aggressive than I did yesterday and took some more chances. I’m finally feeling confident again going fast. I’m pushing the limits and I want more speed. I haven’t had that yet until today.”

Vonn’s victory was her 60th on the World Cup tour. She moves within two of the women’s record, held by retired Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll. She has said she not only wants to break that mark but is thinking about the men’s mark — 86, held by Ingemark Stenmark of Sweden — and wants to keep racing through the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Fifteen of Vonn’s 60 victories have come at Lake Louise. She won seven races in a row there from 2010 to 2012.

For most of the past year, Vonn has been in ski limbo.

At the February 2013 world championships, she shredded her right knee in a crash. She underwent surgery.

In November 2013, in a training crash, she injured the knee again.

Last December, trying to suck it up for Sochi, she skied at Lake Louise, finishing 40th, 11th and fifth. In a fourth World Cup race last Dec. 21, she aggravated the knee in a race in Val d’Isere, France. Another knee surgery in January meant no Sochi Games.

Her comeback since has been well-chronicled. She said Saturday evening in a brief teleconference with reporters that the knee feels great; she has to wear a brace when she skis but that's it. No restrictions, she said.

Vonn finished eighth in Friday’s downhill, a race that, for the first time in two seasons, saw four American women land in the top 10, Laurenne Ross in fourth, Mancuso seventh and Cook ninth.

Saturday’s downhill saw the same, the 1-2-3 and then Ross in sixth.

“I always thought this was something possible with our team,” Cook, who made her first World Cup podium since Dec. 1, 2012, said. “I really wanted to be a part of it when it happened. It’s a good day to step up. I’m so excited for Lindsey too. It’s a cool day.”

Mancuso, who has four Olympic medals but hadn’t been on a World Cup podium since March 3, 2013, said, “It’s cool because both of the girls on the podium with me are my age. We’re all the same age—born in ’84—and we’re veterans of the World Cup. We’ve all been working very hard and I’ve grown up with both of them. It’s an awesome day!”

Vonn, in that 10-minute teleconference Saturday evening with reporters, said this:

"I definitely think I shocked a few people. Yesterday I think everyone was, you know, genuinely happy for me and they thought it was a really great start to my season. But I don’t think really anyone expected me to win today. And I could definitely see that on a few of the girls’ faces.

"I could see that my teammates knew it was coming. They know me very well. They were extremely supportive and happy.

"Like I said in the finish, I am not expecting this to happen all the time. I am still, you know, kind of getting a feel for things and building my confidence and getting used to racing again. But, you know, I feel a lot better after the win today. My confidence is definitely a lot -- a lot -- better.

"I just hope to keep the ball rolling and keep improving."

U.S. alpine: five is plenty fine

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There were a couple hours Saturday evening when it seemed possible the U.S. alpine ski team — already with a performance here at the Sochi 2014 Olympics that history will judge as fine, indeed— might, just might, sneak away with what would amount to a bonus medal. After Run 1 of the men’s slalom, Ted Ligety, winner three days ago of the giant slalom, had put himself in position for a medal. He was only 11-hundredths back of third.

The U.S. alpine team went into Saturday night with five medals, tied for its second-best performance ever at a Winter Games, with the Sarajevo 1984 team. Only the Vancouver 2010 team, which racked up eight, had done better.

Ted Ligety, left, and Germany's Felix Neureuther after crashing out in Run 2 of the slalom // photo Getty Images

Tantalizingly, six suddenly seemed within reach. Because he already had the GS gold, Ligety was skiing the slalom with no expectation, no pressure. The buzz started building — remember those two killer slalom runs Ligety put down to win his first Olympic gold, the combined, in Torino in 2006?

And then came the buzzkill.

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Shiffrin's 'sure as heck' gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The first Olympics he went to, in his very first race, 15-year-old Michael Phelps took fifth place. He got right back in the pool and, soon enough, he set his first world record. In his next Olympic race — which, because of the calendar, had to wait four years — he won gold. In her first Olympic race, the women’s giant slalom here Tuesday, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin took fifth. She said, “I think this is supposed to happen,” adding, “The next Olympics I go to, I sure as heck am not getting fifth.”

Women's slalom gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin // photo courtesy Tom Kelly and U.S. Ski Team

There are moments, even at the Olympics, that are genuinely special. These moments make memories that last through the years. They also make cross-over stars, the ones who can make it big outside the confines of a niche like alpine skiing.

Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t have to wait four full years. She sure as heck gave it the full Friday Night Lights treatment here at Rosa Khutor, throwing down two incredible — and very different — runs to win gold in the women’s slalom.

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The contradictory essence of Bode

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It has been 12 years since Bode Miller won his first Olympic medals, in Salt Lake City. He is 36 now and these are surely his last Olympic Games.  He is at once one of the most accomplished and one of the most complex figures ever to make his way across the American and international sports landscape.

Bode Miller and his wife Morgan leave the course after the men's giant slalom, his last race at the 2014 Sochi Games // photo Getty Images

No question he is the best ski racer the United States has ever produced. He has six Olympic medals, including a bronze in the super-G here. He has two overall World Cup titles, 33 World Cup wins, 78 World Cup podium finishes. He is is also one of only five skiers to win World Cup races in five disciplines.

As Miller has often maintained, he doesn’t ski for the medals.

And it is here that the contradictions of Bode Miller clash, often visibly, sometimes — as in Torino in 2006, when he wasn’t feeling it — to his great detriment. This can be no surprise. Great artists come layered with rippled currents of contradiction that play out to powerful effect and in different directions.

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Ted Ligety's 'awesome' GS gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis. Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

Ted Ligety in victory after the giant slalom // photo Getty Images

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ted Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

It was, in a word, awesome.

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Tina Maze's GS poetry slam

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Slovenia’s Tina Maze calls slalom her favorite discipline, which perhaps is a surprise given that it is, of the five alpine ski events, her weakest. It is giant slalom that brings out her soulful side. “GS,” she says, “is like poetry for me.”

The camera catches Tina Maze making snow angels in victory after the second of her two giant slalom runs // photo Getty Images

In that spirit, after a wild and wet day Tuesday at Rosa Khutor that saw Maze fight through snow, rain, sleet and fog to win her second gold medal of the 2014 Winter Games and indisputably re-establish that she is, no question, the No. 1 female skier on Planet Earth, here is a haiku to commemorate not just the moment but the ski poetry Maze slammed down in winning the GS:

Tina Maze wins

One more Sochi gold medal

What now, Lindsey Vonn?

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Shiffrin's 5th hints at greatness

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When Michael Phelps would stand on the blocks in an Olympic final and do that thing he did, wrapping his arms around and around and making that whap-whap-whap sound, was there really any doubt in his mind — or anyone’s watching — what was going to happen? In the chaos of an Olympic short-track speed skating race, when Apolo Ohno toed the line, his bandana tucked under his helmet, his gaze locked like steel on the first few meters of ice ahead, he was all purposeful calm. He knew what was what, and everyone else — on the line around him — and the thousands in the arena did, too.

Mikaela Shiffrin after Tuesday's racing in the snow, sleet, rain and fog // photo Getty Images

It takes great physical talent to become an Olympic athlete. A select few have something more. They have an extra level of mental awareness, purposefulness, toughness.

Even on a day when there is no medal — there are those in whom the signs are there of greatness assuredly to come.

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Bode: skiing for a higher purpose

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It has been manifest since he strapped his boots into into skis here at the Rosa Khutor complex that Bode Miller was racing with a higher sense of purpose at these Olympic Games. He has wanted it bad, perhaps too badly, sought in the expression of sport and art that has always been his calling, in the rush of a minute or maybe two in the joinder of man and mountain, to find that moment of clarity and, indeed, of transcendence.

Morgan Miller, right, comforts her husband Bode in the finish area after Sunday's super-G // photo Getty Images

At the bottom of the hill Sunday, when the big scoreboard said he was on his way to winning an Olympic medal for the sixth time in his storied career, Bode Miller cried. His wife, Morgan, cried. They hugged each other. Holding an American flag, she helped him regain his composure amid television interviews. Later, on the podium, the flag draped over his right shoulder, before congratulating the others — because Bode Miller has always believed in sportsmanship — he appeared to be alone with his thoughts.

And then it all became clear.

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