Speed-Seeking Shiffrin Leads Strong U.S. Women’s Team To World Championships
by Karen Price
Mikaela Shiffrin competes in the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Giant Slalom in Jan. 17, 2021 in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
Mikaela Shiffrin gave the skiing world a little surprise last week when she announced she’d race speed events for the first time this season — at the world championships.
It’s a big stage for her return to competition in the super-G, in which she’s the reigning world champion, and the combined. But she’s not stopping there. The two-time Olympian will surpass her previous high of racing in three different events during the competition, which she did in 2019.
Shiffrin will also be competing in her signature technical events — giant slalom, in which she reached the podium in the last two world championships, and slalom, in which she’ll be going for world title No. 5. Both are events in which she has won gold medals at the Olympics.
While all eyes are always on Shiffrin, the 25-year-old isn’t the only U.S. athlete to keep an eye on at this year’s world championships, which begin on Monday and close on Feb. 21 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Breezy Johnson goes into her world championships riding a string of podiums in the downhill during world cup racing this season. After recovering from serious knee injuries in September 2018 and again in July 2019, the 25-year-old Olympian got her first world cup podium result in December 2020 with a third-place finish in the downhill.
The youngest finisher in the top 10 in the downhill at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Johnson then made it three more podiums in a row through January. She’s only the fourth U.S. woman to podium four times in a row in downhill during world cup racing, joining Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso and Picabo Street.
“I think there’s a lot that I love about all the different downhill tracks and so I think that’s led to part of my consistency is just not being like, ‘Oh, this is a technical track, I’m not going to be good at this,’” said Johnson, who also earned her first super-G points of the season at the most recent world cup event. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, this is a fun track, I like this part about it and this part I struggle with but that’s OK.’ Going into Cortina I want to just take the same approach. I’ve said it all along that one of my goals this season is to win a medal at the world championships and that’s still definitely true.”
With top-five finishes in all five downhills this season Johnson is currently in second place in the world cup points standings behind Italy’s Sofia Goggia. With Goggia, the reigning Olympic downhill champion, now out of world championships with a knee injury, Johnson is an even greater favorite to medal.
“It’s really unfortunate that Sofia got injured, and I wish her the best,” Johnson said. “But I also want to ski my best and I hope that by the end of this nobody puts a little asterisk on whoever wins saying Sofia wasn’t there because unfortunately, as we all know, injury is part of the sport. We wish Sofia the best and we want her back but the show must go on.”
Another U.S. woman who’s made some noise this year is Paula Moltzan. She got her first world cup podium in a parallel event back in November, finishing second, and also had a top-10 finish in slalom and giant slalom this season.
Unfortunately for Ryan Cochran-Siegle, he won’t get the chance to test himself at this year’s world championships. The 2018 Olympian won his first world cup race in a super-G earlier this season in Bormio, Italy, and had a second-place finish in a downhill earlier this season. But he suffered a minor cervical spine fracture in a crash at a race in late January. Although he’s hoping to return before the end of the world cup season in March, his timetable for recovery was announced at six weeks to three months.
Health problems also have sidelined Tommy Ford, who was the U.S. men’s best hope in giant slalom. Ford suffered multiple injuries in a crash in early January and is out for the rest of the season. Cochran-Siegle and Ford are the only two U.S. men with world cup podiums since the last Olympics.
Shiffrin herself came into this season following a longer than usual layoff. After her father unexpectedly passed away on Feb. 2, 2020, Shiffrin took some time off from racing. She’d intended to return in March but shortly after she arrived in Europe, the races — and the remainder of the season — were canceled because of COVID-19.
Shiffrin then injured her back and didn’t race until November. She goes into the world championships with five slalom and five giant slalom races this season, with all top-six finishes and a win each in slalom and giant slalom.
She hasn’t raced in a super-G since Jan. 26, 2020.
“I’m really going into this sort of speed section of world champs with the intention of almost trying to take it as an opportunity for training,” she told NBC Sports. “I think that I’ll be able to have a pretty good result, but when you look at what Lara (Gut-Behrami)’s been able to do the last races (four consecutive super-G wins) and what a lot of the girls are doing, I have absolutely no guarantee that it’s going to stack up.
“I’m not going in to defend my (super-G) title, if that makes sense. I want to be clear about that.”