VAIL — Mikaela Shiffrin won’t be racing, but the show does go on this weekend at the World Cup’s traditional season opener, Saturday’s women’s giant slalom in Soelden, Austria.
Quick trivia: Who won last year’s Soelden women’s GS? It’s not one of the usual suspects.
Alice Robinson of New Zealand. You remember that, right? Shiffrin was second and France’s Tessa Worley took third.
That’s a good reminder, as with football watching, not to put too much of an emphasis on the first race. After finishing second to Shiffrin at the 2019 World Cup finals in March, Robinson’s win last October was meant to be her great launching-pad victory into being a Shiffrin challenger.
Robinson ended up having knee issues that led to an inconsistent season, which did include another in GS in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in February while Shiffrin was out.
The bigger takeaway from Soelden 2019 was that Shiffrin finished second and Slovakian Petra Vlhova was 14th. Since Vlhova was considered Shirffrin’s main competition in all things GS and slalom, we were all excited about how Mikaela had an 80-14 lead coming out of the first race over the Slovakian.
Then Shiffrin won the Levi, Finland, slalom with Vlhova DNF-ing, a 100-point swing and Mikaela was going to cruise easily to titles in GS, slalom and overall.
Obviously, it didn’t go that way with Shiffrin struggling during parts of December and January. It’s important to define struggling. When Shiffrin struggles, it doesn’t mean that she forgot how to ski. She just didn’t destroy everything and everyone in her wake, which we now expect after her ridiculous 2018-19 with 17 World Cup wins and 19 victories, including the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
And then, of course, Shiffrin’s father passed away on Feb. 2, and the COVID-19 entered our vocabulary and the season went off the rails in all sorts of ways.
Every year is different and the 2020-21 women’s World Cup will be so in many ways. About the only thing we know is that, with Shiffrin having returned to the United States with a back injury, someone not named Mikaela will be leading the standings after Saturday.
Since Shiffrin didn’t race in what ended up being the last month of the season, February, because of her situation with her father, and coronavirus wiped out March, here’s how last season ended.
• Federica Brignone, of Italy, won the overall, the giant slalom and the combined globes.
• Vlhova is the slalom queen, while Switzerland’s Corinne Suter won both the speed disciplines.
This is the first time since the beginning of the 2016-17 season that Shiffrin enters a season without a title to defend. That said, everyone on the white circus knows that Shiffrin is the de facto favorite in every GS and slalom she enters and is the best bet for the overall.
PETRA VlHova and the age of skiing specialization
Part of the reason that Shiffrin is the favorite is that she is one of only five returning racers who scored in all four disciplines last year (Brignone, Vlhova and Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener and Michelle Gisin).
More races equal more chances to score points, and in an increasing era of specialization, well, there just aren’t that many who can every race like Tina Maze, Lindsey Vonn and Maria Hoefl-Riesch did in the past.
Do watch out for Vlhova.
The Slovakian, best known for her tech skills, started to branch out last season into speed and was met with successful results. Vlhova finished second in the super-G points — ahead of Shiffrin in third — with three top-10 finishes last season. She even had a top 10 (fourth) in downhill in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
And if you’re handicapping the season, Brignone may be a bit behind the 8-ball as there will be no combined events this season because of COVID-19 (ski racers hanging around a slope all day is bad for social distancing). Two-hundred of her 1,288 points came in the combined last season and she only beat Shiffrin by 92 points last year.
What does Shiffrin want?
This is the biggest question. Last week when Shiffrin withdrew from Soelden after “tweaking” her back, we noted the timing was strange. If it was a tweak, don’t you hang around to see if your back gets better, so you can give it a try, right?
Apparently not. Maybe the back was more than a tweak? We’re not doctors and we don’t play them on TV, however, if you combine a wonky back with a little bit of perfectly-understandable indecision on life after your father died, as was reported by many news outlets, we might be getting closer.
“It’s a little bit tough to not feel what’s underlying everything,” Shiffrin said to The Washington Post. “When someone says, ‘How are you doing?’ it’s normally with this different tone. And I’m like, ‘We only have 30 seconds here. Can we realistically chat? I don’t know if you really want me to get into that.’
“And on a daily basis, I might be like, ‘Well, at this moment, my eyes are dry, and we’re having a conversation. I’d say that’s a pretty good moment.’”
I really related to this. When people asked me “How are you doing?” after my father died unexpectedly, I had two responses. The first was that I wanted to punch them in the face because I deal with uncertainty with anger. The second was that I wanted to fly past the automatic, “Fine,” and tell them how I was actually doing — in vivid detail.
Though Shiffrin seems, from outward appearance, to be doing as best as she can with the loss of her father, there is no formula for grieving. My guess is that there’ll be times this season when Mikaela looks like “old Mikaela” and has one of her dominant weekends sweeping up everyone. And there’ll be times she’s just not sharp, just not all there.
The thing we as fans have to remember is that in most of our professions, a lapse in concentration often means a correctable mistake. For Shiffrin, a lapse in concentration could end up with her in some fence netting with an injury.
Take your time, Mikaela.