The 2013-14 Audi FIS Alpine World Cup polished off its final five regular-season races last weekend and settled absolutely nothing as the closest overall races in years are coming down to the World Cup Finals.
One thing is for sure. The U.S. Ski Team has produced elite gate racers in Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin—Shiffrin having already clinched her second straight World Cup women’s slalom title and Ligety still in the hunt for his fifth World Cup giant slalom championship.
Both Shiffrin and Ligety won on Saturday, March 8, Shiffrin in slalom at Are, Sweden and Ligety in giant slalom at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
Olympic slalom gold medalist Shiffrin from Eagle-Vail, Co., who turns 19 Thursday, March 13, became the youngest racer in World Cup history to reach eight slalom wins with her fourth victory of the season.
Ligety, 29, of Park City, Utah, became the first man in Audi FIS Alpine World Cup history to win six times at the same venue. The stunning 23rd win of his career moved Ligety within 50 points of Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who finished fourth, for the 2014 World Cup giant slalom title.
The World Cup finals are March 12-16 at Lenzerheide, Switz. Downhill races are Wednesday, March 12, with super giant slalom for both men and women on Thursday, men’s GS and women’s slalom on Saturday, and women’s GS and men’s slalom on Sunday.
Depending on how they perform in the speed races, Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway and Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany are poised to win the overall World Cup titles. But they are no locks, by any means.
Svindal, 31, last won overall World Cup crowns in 2007 and 2009 and captured the Olympic super giant slalom gold medal in 2010. The five-time world champion and 25-time World Cup winner with 57 podiums has already clinched the 2013-14 downhill and super giant slalom titles—his 10th and 11th World Cup season titles.
Yet after the Kranjska Gora technical weekend, Svindal picked up only 14 points in Slovenia and fell behind two-time defending World Cup overall king Marcel Hirscher of Austria, who collected 95. Hirscher now leads the way with 1,050 points and Svindal has 1,046.
Hirscher, 24, is seeking to become the first three-peat overall champion since American Phil Mahre did it from 1981-83.
In third place overall is Alexis Pinturault of France with 819 points. U.S. technical star Ligety is fourth with 744. Hirscher leads Ligety 510-460 in the giant slalom standings with only the March 15 finale remaining.
For the women, Hoefl-Riesch, 29, earned her only World Cup overall title in 2011. The 5-11, 172-pound German is a three-time Olympic gold medalist including her super combined gold at Sochi in February. She has 27 World Cup victories and 80 podiums during her 13-year career.
However, in the three technical races at Are last weekend Hoefl-Riesch managed only a 72-point pickup, while second-place Anna Fenninger, 24, of Austria won both giant slaloms and added 200 points to her total.
So, heading into the World Cup finals, Hoefl-Riesch remains in first place with 1,180 points but Fenninger is right on her heels with 1,151. In third place is Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein with 943 points.
Shiffrin still stands in sixth place with 773 points but her slalom lead is insurmountable with only one race remaining, 538-408 over second-place Frida Hansdotter, 19, of Sweden.
Returning to the site of her first-ever World Cup victory in Dec. 2012, Shiffrin posted a stunning victory Saturday to become the youngest woman in World Cup annals to reach eight slalom wins. She is already the youngest Olympic slalom and world slalom champion in history.
Frida Hansdotter of Sweden was the only other athlete in the title hunt and was second after the first run, but finished fourth to lock the title for Shiffrin before the final race of the season.
Shiffrin opened a 0.66-second gap on the field in the first run despite stormy weather. She then held on to the lead and prevailed by 0.60 seconds over Maria Pietilae-Holmer of Sweden. Anna Swenn-Larsson, also of Sweden, was third for the first World Cup podium of her career.
“I’m just really comfortable on slalom skis,” Shiffrin told the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association News Bureau. “It feels so easy to me when I’m loose and I let my skis go and it just seems like they find the finish for me and I don’t have to work so hard. My next goal is to win in giant slalom.”
USST Women’s Technical Head Coach Roland Pfeifer said about Shiffin’s progress, “We’re all still thinking about what’s going to be her future. It’s very challenging to make the next step. We need to be very inventive to even extend our gap a little bit more and get better and better. Mikaela is such an invaluable athlete for the U.S. Ski Team. She is the golden feet, so we really need to focus what we’re going to do with her.”
With his giant slalom accomplishment at Kranjska Gora, Ligety posted his 23rd World Cup career win and eclipsed some pretty elite company—men with five wins at the same venue.
They are Ingemar Stenmark (Adelboden, Kitzbuehel and Madonna di Campiglio), Alberto Tomba (Sestriere), Hermann Maier (Kitzbuehel), Didier Cuche (Kitzbuehel) and Svindal (Lake Louise).
Ligety said, “This is definitely a really cool hill. It has so much personality and it’s really a fun hill to ski. It has the steep parts. It has some rolls. It has a little bit of a gliding section. So it’s a true GS skier’s hill. I just try to stay ahead of the rut as always. I’m not the kind of person that tries to cut off line, so I just tried to ski smart and be clean as much as I could.”