One Year Out: Will Vonn recover in time? Will Ligety be a threat?
The 2010 Olympic Games in the idyllic ski village of Whistler, three hours north of Vancouver, were like no other Games in history for the U.S. alpine ski team. They were the coming together of promise and the defeat of stress and injury, the dual triumphs of youth and age and validation of systemic and individual work.
U.S. racers won eight medals, including golds by the brilliant Lindsey Vonn in the women's downhill and the enigmatic (but no less brilliant) Bode Miller in the men's downhill/slalom combined. It was three more medals than U.S. skiers had ever won in a Winter Games (the previous best was five in 1984, though three of those were gold). All of this was done without a single medal in the technical events of slalom and giant slalom.
The time between Olympics is an eternity. Carryover from one Games to the next is reserved for only the most enduring of programs or the most gifted of athletes. So it was more than a little remarkable that at the beginning of February, barely more than one year from the Sochi Games, U.S. Alpine skiers were a genuine threat to match those eight medals and to win more than two golds.
That possibility was clouded on the morning of Feb. 5 in Schladming, Austria, when Vonn landed awkwardly off a jump in the Super-G race at the world alpine championships, tearing two ligaments and fracturing the tibial plateau in her right knee.
To have matched or better the remarkable medal haul from 2010, Team USA would have already had to collectively take down the potential women's star of the Games, Tina Maze of Slovenia. Maze will be 30 at the Games but she's dominated this winter's overall World Cup after finishing fourth, third and second in each of the last three years and won two silver medals in Whistler (and also won the Super-G worlds race in which Vonn was injured).
Now Team USA will also need an accelerated recovery from Vonn, who will undergo surgery to repair the damage in her knee sustained at worlds. She said in a statement the day after her crash, "I can assure you that I will work as hard as humanly possible to be ready to represent my country next year in Sochi."
It is a challenging circumstance for Vonn, but not entirely unfamiliar, who has endured a steady stream of injuries and personal upheaval to become arguably the greatest female ski racer in history. Her 59 World Cup race wins are second only to Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria, who won 62 races from 1970-'80. In the 2011 season alone, Vonn was divorced from her husband and coach, Thomas Vonn; suffered a concussion in a fall and struggled with a sore left knee throughout the season -- yet she still won her fourth overall World Cup and nearly became the first skier in history to score 2,000 World Cup points in a season. She missed several weeks of the current season with an intestinal illness, but won six races before her injury in Austria.
At the time of her injury, Vonn, 28, was a distant second in the World Cup standings behind Maze, who has won seven races and led the overall standings over Maria Reisch of Germany by nearly 900 points heading into the Worlds. Yet Vonn won a World Cup giant slalom race over Maze last week in Maribor (in Maze's native country), at the time foreshadowing terrific matchups in Schladming and next year in Sochi.
Behind Vonn, the U.S. women's speed team has shown unprecedented depth, with seven podium finishes divided among Stacey Cook, Alice McKennis (who won downhill in St. Anton, Austria), Leanne Smith and Mancuso. Only four can start any given Olympic race, a rule that long inhibited the once-powerful Austrian men's team.
Among the U.S. masses, Mancuso is a proven big-race performer who salvaged the U.S. women's team's only gold medal (giant slalom) at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and took a bronze medal behind Maze in the world Super-G, racing just four spots after Vonn's crash. The others will have to prove that their improvement translates to a much larger stage. It is a step that Vonn was famously unable to take when expected to win medals at the 2005 world championships.
Yet as much as Vonn remains the star of the women's team, the winter of 2013 has belonged to Mikaela Shiffrin, who made her World Cup debut at age 15 and won't turn 18 until March, but has won three slalom races and leads Maze in the slalom standings. Long regarded as a racing prodigy, Shiffrin is the first U.S. racer in history to win two (never mind three) individual World Cup races before the age of 18. Slalom is a capricious event in which even the best competitors are subject to the whims of an icy patch or a straddled gate, but Shiffrin, who is expected to begin racing downhill and Super G in the near future, will be among the gold medal favorites in Sochi, and she would become the youngest medalist in U.S. alpine history.
The men's side of the alpine competition looks much murkier. There is not a dominant international racer in 2013: slalom/giant slalom specialist Marcel Hirscher of Austria leads the overall standings, almost solely on the foundation of his 800 points and four race victories in slalom. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who like Miller won gold, silver and bronze medals in Vancouver, and like Miller has two overall titles, is chasing Hirscher. Svindal will be 31 in Sochi, and 2011 overall winner Ivica Kostelic of Croatia will be 34. Much could change in the coming year.
The inscrutable Miller, who will be 37 in Sochi and whose five overall medals are the most by any U.S. alpine Olympian (this, despite mailing in the 2006 Games in a fit of petulance, which remains a major hole in his record), has skipped the entire 2013 season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee. His only victory since Vancouver was a shocking first in the Beaver Creek downhill in Dec. of 2011, and he has received more publicity in the last year for getting married (last fall to professional beach volleyball player Morgan Beck) and delving into ownership of racehorses with his friend, trainer Bob Baffert. But Miller has resolved to make '13 memorable and while it would seem unlikely, there has been nothing conventional about his career or his singular genius on racing skis.
The more likely U.S. medalist is Ted Ligety, who will be 29 in Sochi, has won three of the last five World Cup giant slalom titles (he leads Svindal in this year's standings). One day after Vonn's crash at the Worlds took a stunning gold medal in Super-G, an event he has never won on the World Cup. In 2006, at the age of 21, Ligety was a stunning gold medalist -- the only one among U.S. men -- in the combined event. His giant slalom ninth in Vancouver was a huge disappointment, his fourth in combined less so despite its proximity to the podium. In the rush of U.S. gold, he was the forgotten man. In 2013, he has mastered the rules-mandated longer, stiffer racing skis better than anyone else. In a year, that gap is likely to have narrowed, but Ligety appears to also be a medal three in Super-G.
Yet there is truly only one certainty in Olympic alpine racing, where nerves, weather and learning curves turn form charts to slush: A medal (or medals) will be won by a skier who was scarcely mentioned leading to the games. Like Tommy Moe of the U.S., who won the 1994 downhill in Norway. Or Mancuso and Ligety in 2006. Or Andrew Weibrecht of the U.S., who still has never finished better than 10th in a World Cup race, yet won a bronze medal in Whistler (and has battled injuries since). Another will be lost by a skier who seemed certain to win one. Like the great Hermann Maier, who emerged from nowhere to crush the World Cup and then flew off the mountainside in Nagano in 1998, or Vonn, who crashed in downhill in 2006.
Can Vonn recover? Has Maze peaked too soon? Just how good is Shiffrin? And does Miller have anything left? Is Ligety truly a threat in multiple events? Guesswork now, great theater in a year.