On the weekend after Thanksgiving in the Canadian Rockies, U.S. alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn, having reduced the women's World Cup to an annual certainty, will -- or will not -- race in a men's World Cup downhill at the Lake Louise Resort. Vonn has expressed a desire to take her transcendent speed across the gender line and hopes to receive approval from international skiing's governing body on the first weekend in November.
As the white circus rolls out its five-month season, beginning with the traditional kickoff giant slaloms this weekend on the Rettenbach Glacier above Soelden, Austria, Vonn's attempt at rolling with the boys is the most intriguing story of the pre-Olympic year, even though it would be essentially a sideshow event unrelated to the World Cup season or the 2014 Sochi Games (except to underscore Vonn's place in the sport).
This could turn out well, or badly, for the sport of ski racing. It will surely be good for Vonn, provided that she is competitive (which she should be, though certainly not with the very best male skiers). In fact it's good for Vonn that she merely asked, raising the profile of the Vonn Brand just by seeking the chance. It will be bad for the racers Vonn defeats and potentially damaging to the daredevil vibe of the men's sport if a large percentage are beaten by a girl. But it underscores the reality of alpine racing's place on the crowded world sports stage: Vonn is the only crossover star in the sport, a dominant, telegenic and genuinely likeable performer in an old-school sport that has been gradually losing traction to its snowy X-Games-born brethren (various forms of snowboarding, skiercross and such).
1. Lindsey Vonn's dominance: Regardless of whether she skis against men in November, she will spend the rest of the season -- which includes the two-week, biennial world alpine championships at Schladming, Austria, in mid-February -- competing against women and trying to establish herself as the greatest female alpine racer in history. She is already on a very short list.
Vonn, 28, last year skied through the messy publicity of her November separation from former U.S. racer Thomas Vonn and won her fourth overall World Cup title, as well as discipline titles in downhill, Super-G and combined. She will be the favorite to repeat in all of those categories and in 2012 also became a threat in giant slalom, which had been her only weak event. Concurrently, Vonn struggled in slalom, where she had previous been competitive.
Vonn has of this writing won 53 World Cup races in a 12-year career than began just a month after her 16th birthday. Only Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria (who last raced in 1980), with 62; and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland (who retired in 1995), with 55, have more career victories. Vonn could catch both of them this year. Purists will argue that Vonn's total has been padded by her 18 victories in Super-G, a hybrid event that didn't exist when Moser-Proell and Schneider raced. (Moser-Proell would have won many Super-G races; Schneider was principally a technical racer who never won a World Cup downhill.) Yet there is no doubting Vonn's excellence against her generational peers, and barring injury, no sign that her dominance will abate soon.
2. End of the road for Bode? Just as Vonn is the greatest U.S. women's racer in history, to a lesser extent Bode Miller is best men's racer. His 33 World Cup victories (again, with five in Super-G) are six more than 80s-era racer Phil Mahre, and while Mahre won only in technical events, Miller has won across all five disciplines. He ranks seventh all-time in World Cup victories, and trails only Benni Raich of Austria (36) among active racers. But Miller, who turned 35 this month, has won just a single World Cup race -- the downhill in Beaver Creek last season -- since his three-medal performance at the 2010 Olympics.
Miller also comes to the 2013 season off microfracture on the left knee that he first injured in a catastrophic crash at the 2001 worlds and it has bothered him ever since, along with numerous other hurts commensurate with his profession for such a long time. He has said that he will not rush his entry into the current season. On the lifestyle side, the one-time wild man of World Cup nightlife, who had been known to trudge from last call to course inspection, was married in early October to former Cal-Berkeley volleyball player Morgan Beck. (Miller has a daughter from a previous relationship.) Historically, Miller has overcome physical and social hurdles with his immense talent. Whether he chooses to continue doing that will determine whether his era -- and an era of U.S. ski racing -- is over.
3. The rest of the Americans: The U.S. Ski Team's overall success is always measured by the Olympic and World Cup accomplishments of a very small number of athletes. Team USA has a long history of finding new stars just as the old ones step aside. There's no sense that Vonn is anywhere near retirement, and behind her is Julia Mancuso, also 28, who has three Olympic medals and seven World Cup victories, and is also one of the best U.S. racers in history. Miller is much closer to the end. Behind him is Ted Ligety, 28, a 2006 Olympic gold medalist, three-time World Cup giant slalom season winner, and 11-time World Cup race winner.
Behind that foursome of Vonn, Mancuso, Miller and Ligety, all of them closer to the end than the beginning, a challenging search is on for the next potential U.S. stars. On the men's side; Steven Nyman, 30, and Marco Sullivan, 32, each have won World Cup speed races, but none in the last four years. Slalom specialist Nolan Kasper, 23, was second in a World Cup last year. Andrew Weibrecht, 26, won a stunning bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics, but has been slowed by shoulder and ankle injuries during the last two seasons. Among the women; Stacey Cook, 28, was 10th in the season downhill standings a year ago, and 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin scored a slalom podium in her rookie year on the World Cup.
4. The world: Vonn owns the women's standings. Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who in 2011 won the only overall title in the last five years that Vonn did not (Vonn missed part of the year after a concussion), remains, along with Mancuso, the most consistent threat. Two-medal-winning 2010 Olympian Tina Maze of Slovenia, who finished second a year ago, more than 500 points behind Vonn, is 29 years old; Elisebeth Goergl of Austria, who finished sixth, is 31. Youngest among the returning contenders is Austrian Anna Fenninger, 23, who had six podiums a year ago.
Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, who won the overall title in 2011 and was leading last season before a knee injury took him off the circuit, will start this season late with another injury. Marcel Hirscher won the 2012 title by a narrow 25 points over Beat Fuez of Switzerland, 25, who took four races and looms as the next superstar in the sport. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, overall champion in 2007 and '09, remains a threat.
5. Skis too long? In the summer of 2011, skiing's international governing body implemented rules that enlarge the radius on giant slalom skis, in effect putting racers on longer, heavier models that will not turn as efficiently. The rationale for the change was that a longer radius would reduce knee injuries, although racers have vigorously disputed that claim. It is certain that they will be on longer, heavier GS skis than in recent years, and that their technique will involve more sliding through turns than simply edging. They will be faster when courses are straighter and probably slower when courses have more sharp turns. How this will affect racing -- or injuries -- remains uncertain. U.S. independent racer Warner Nickerson did video interviews with a number races and those interviews were posted to Ski Racing magazine's website.
It is likely that lighter racers will have a more difficult time turning the heavier skis, and just as likely that heavier racers will move up in the giant slalom results. And it's a lock that the races will look like they were filmed in 1987.