COURCHEVEL, France (AP) — There appears little to prevent Mikaela Shiffrin taking over from Lindsey Vonn as the unstoppable force in women’s ski racing.
Shiffrin has a huge lead in defense of her overall World Cup title and her four wins this season have been in different disciplines. The 22-year-old American is branching out, and feeling confident about it. And with the Olympic Games coming up, that’s very bad news for her rivals.
Her downhill win at Lake Louise in early December was a personal breakthrough and sent out a statement: The Olympic and three-time world slalom champion, who has a few wins in giant slalom races, no longer views herself as just a technical specialist.
“I’m finding something new, some more speed,” Shiffrin told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “My positioning, my skiing, my tactics, everything’s coming together. I’m certainly not (just) a slalom skier anymore, I consider myself an all-event skier.”
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Her two wins at the French Alpine resort of Courchevel this week — in GS and the inaugural parallel slalom — took her to 35 World Cup wins.
Vonn is the women’s all-time record-holder with 78. The undisputed star for so many years, Vonn also has four overall World Cup titles and doubtless would have had more if not for serious knee injuries.
She is far from finished, either. The 33-year-old American came back in style with a super-G win at Val d’Isere last Saturday — her first win on the World Cup circuit since January.
But considering Shiffrin is so much younger, and has an expanding repertoire, she is well positioned to become a record-breaker. The number of wins Shiffrin could get — if she stays injury-free — is potentially staggering.
When asked if she can beat Vonn’s mark, Shiffrin takes a long and thoughtful pause.
“If I’m feeling crazy I can think, yeah, maybe if I keep going this way I could get 78 or something. I could get there,” she told The AP after Tuesday’s GS win in Courchevel. “But as soon as I think about that, my skiing starts getting really bad. It’s fun to dream about these things, but it’s not my first goal.”
Although supremely confident, the slimly-built Shiffrin knows that becoming a multi-event specialist puts her best discipline at risk.
“If I ski my best then I know it’s good enough to win in any event, actually. Even in downhill,” she said. “But it is very, very difficult to stay strong in every event. The better I get with speed, the more my slalom suffers.”
Intriguingly, she could race Vonn in downhill at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February.
Injury-hit Vonn missed the 2014 Games and is intensely motivated to reclaim the downhill title she won at the 2010 Games.
Facing Vonn in downhill would be a treat for U.S. fans — and somewhat like Shiffrin agreeing to fight Vonn in her own backyard.
It might be too good to refuse.
“I hadn’t been planning on doing the downhill. For sure, after Lake Louise I’m considering it more,” Shiffrin said. “It’s cool that the tech (slalom and GS) races are first, so that makes me feel more comfortable with doing the speed races.”
Asked what would happen if she actually beat Vonn in downhill at the Olympics, Shiffrin bursts into loud laughter.
It is not a mocking laugh, but one of incredulity at the idea of toppling arguably the greatest women’s downhill skier of all time.
Shiffrin then becomes serious again, talking about Vonn with utmost respect, yet her burning ambition is hard to contain.
“If I were able to win a medal in any of the speed events that would be absolutely incredible,” Shiffrin said. “If it was gold, even better.”
She could also face Vonn in super-G.
However, Shiffrin’s workload is unlikely to include the nations’ team event, which features parallel slalom and makes its Olympic debut.
“I’m not planning on it. To take that really seriously we would have to find some time to have the U.S. team training together, and there is no time,” she said. “Even right now, my biggest concern is thinking about racing the downhill as well as super-G and (Alpine) combined.
“That’s such a full (program) and I don’t know,” she says, wearily contemplating how much it would take out of her. “It’s exhausting.”