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Shiffrin looks to build on all-time victory record, defend title as World Cup kicks off

October 26, 2023, 11:53 am
Mikaela Shiffrin of Edwards competes in a downhill last season in Kvitfjell, Norway (photo by Jonas Ericsson/Agence Zoom/Getty Images).

The International Ski Federation (FIS) recently issued this preview of the World Cup alpine ski racing season, which gets underway this weekend in Sölden, Austria. The all-time victory leader, Mikaela Shiffrin of Edwards, looks dominate again and defend her overall World Cup title from last season:

The Audi FIS Ski World Cup is back and for the 30th year in a row the women’s and men’s giant slalom is kicking things off in style in Austria’s iconic Sölden resort.

Headline-grabbing storylines are everywhere you look:

Will Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) and Marco Odermatt (SUI) maintain their extraordinary discipline dominance and break yet more records in 2023/24? Can some of the greatest names in Alpine skiing history – from Federica Brignone (ITA) to Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR), and Lara Gut-Behrami (SUI) to Alexis Pinturault (FRA) – rise up and challenge the two reigning champions? Or will new faces emerge to shake up the established order?

The great news is there is not long to wait for the first clues as to how the action will unfold, with the women first out of the gate at 10:00/13:00 CET (2 a.m. and 5 a.m., MT) on Saturday 28 October, and the men racing at the same times the following day.

The raw numbers from Shiffrin’s 2022/23 GS season might be best avoided by her rivals as they gear up for a fresh assault on the most successful women’s World Cup GS skier of all time. The USA star won seven of the 10 World Cup GS races she started, racking up a remarkable 800 points. Add on to that a first world championship giant slalom gold won in style in Courchevel Meribel (FRA).

Fit and insistent that she is still full of motivation, Shiffrin will naturally line up in Sölden as the firm favourite. But there are signs to suggest she is not guaranteed to have it all her own her way.

First up, it is worth acknowledging that within the context of all her record-breaking exploits, the traditional season-opener has not been the most successful of hunting grounds for the 28-year-old. In her last six GS races in Sölden, Shiffrin has triumphed just once.

Also, although it is hard to believe considering what came next, the American did in fact start 2022/23 relatively slowly. After no race in Sölden, she finished 13th on home snow in Killington (USA) and sixth in Sestriere (ITA) in her two opening GS races.

So, who is set to take advantage of any possible lapses from the undoubted No.1?

The seemingly ageless duo of Gut-Behrami and Brignone are a great place to start. The 32-year-old Swiss skier secured second spot in the standings in the final race of last season, her best finish in the discipline. Meanwhile Brignone, a year Gut-Behrami’s senior, shone as brightly as ever in 2022/23. An Alpine combined world title, allied to three World Cup GS podium finishes, give hope that the Italian could repeat her GS globe-winning exploits of 2019/20.

With double GS world champion Tessa Worley (FRA) having hung up her skis, it is Marta Bassino (ITA) and reigning Olympic champion Sara Hector (SWE) who take on the mantles of discipline specialists. Bassino won four times in 2020/21 and added another World Cup win in Sestriere last December.

Others to look out for include New Zealand’s Alice Robinson. After claiming three World Cup GS wins as a teenager – the first of which came in Sölden – the now 21-year-old showed signs she is getting back to her best, with four top-10 GS finishes to round off last season.

Add on highly promising 26-year-old pair Valerie Grenier (CAN) and Thea Louise Stjernesund (NOR), plus the intrigue around whether Petra Vlhova (SVK) can rediscover her best, and the reasons for tuning in to the opening action in Sölden soon become irresistible.

If races were won on paper, Swiss king Odermatt may well be handed the men’s giant slalom crown right now. But, as the 26-year-old knows, Alpine skiing does not work like that and there is a horde of the world’s best itching for the chance to end his reign.

Kristoffersen may well demand Odermatt’s closest attention. The Norwegian has finished second in the GS season standings an incredible four times, the last two of which have been behind the Swiss skier. The difficulty is that consistency has not proved enough. While Kristoffersen claimed seven podium finishes in 2022/23, Odermatt grabbed seven wins.

A fast start will be critical for Odermatt’s rivals but they are up against it, with the Austrian resort full of happy memories for the reigning champion: he triumphed here in both of the past two seasons.

Zan Kranjec (SLO) may be one to stop the current Olympic and world GS champion from jumping into an early lead. The Slovenian has a pretty special Sölden record himself. Second last year and third in two of the three seasons previously, the Beijing 2022 GS Olympic silver medallist will be quietly fancying his chances.

Elsewhere, there is a mixture of young guns and hardened veterans waiting to pounce on any Odermatt errors.

Lucas Braathen (NOR) leads the charge of the new generation. The Norwegian not only established himself as a slalom skier to be feared last season, he also enjoyed some superb moments on the longer skis. A second GS World Cup win came in Alta Badia (ITA) and the fact his first was in Sölden in 2020/21 will do his confidence the world of good.

If Braathen cannot stop the Swiss man, it may well be down to either Marco Schwarz (AUT) or Pinturault. The home fans will be hoping it is Schwarz who jumpstarts the new season. Aged 28, the Austrian is fast becoming the most complete skier on the circuit. A win and two podium finishes in GS last season proves the one-time slalom specialist has what it takes.

Meanwhile, Frenchman Pinturault is the last man not named Odermatt to lift the GS World Cup title. Back in great form – the 32-year-old finished inside the top eight in each of his eight closing GS World Cup races last season – is he the one to stop the Swiss favourite from carrying on from where he left off? We will all find out soon.

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