Coronavirus fears end World Cup season, nixing Mikaela Shiffrin’s shot at a four-peat

Shiffrin was planning on returning to World Cup racing this weekend before cancellation

Vail Daily staff report
Mikaela Shiffrin picked up six World Cup wins in a trying season for her.
Marco Trovati | AP file photo

Mikaela Shiffrin’s shot at a fourth World Cup overall title is finished after the International Ski Federation canceled this weekend’s women’s World Cup races in Are, Sweden, due to COVID-19 concerns. The races were canceled after new recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Sweden.

The announcement means that Italy’s Federica Brignone will claim the overall with 1,378 points, followed by Shiffrin (1,225) and Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova in third with 1,189 points. Brignone is the first Italian woman to win the World Cup in the 53 years of the circuit.

“The health and welfare of the athletes and all other participants, as well as the general public are in the forefront and the priority of FIS and all stakeholders,” the FIS wrote on its website.

Concerns arose when a member of the sponsor support team at the FIS Alpine World Cup self-quarantined after experiencing symptoms of the Coronavirus in Kvitfjell, Norway. He later tested positive.

Other members of the support team traveled to Are and were quarantined immediately.

Shiffrin’s return for naught

Mikaela Shiffrin took to Twitter and Instagram on March 5 to announce she was returning to the World Cup circuit after a month-long absence following the death of her father.

“I have no promises if I’ll actually be able to race,” Shiffrin said in a six-minute video message that addressed the emotions about her father, Jeff, who died on Feb. 2. “There is no doubt that we are broken,” she said of her family’s grief. “Accepting this new ‘reality’ is going to take a long time, and maybe we never truly will, maybe we don’t have to.”

The three remaining races in Are were a scheduled parallel slalom, giant slalom, and slalom.

Shiffrin said she had trained a little but with difficulty.

“It has been a slow process, I have struggled with being able to maintain my focus,” said the two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time defending overall World Cup champion. “But it has been therapeutic to be on the mountain. I’ve found training to be a place where I can feel closer to my dad, yet it provides enough of a distraction so that feeling of ‘closeness’ can be separated from the pain.”

During her absence, Shiffrin lost her lead in the overall standings to Federica Brignone. In her specialist slalom discipline, Petra Vlhova now has a small lead.

Shiffrin last raced on Jan. 26 when she won a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria. The next weekend she returned to her family home in Vail to be with her father at the hospital.

In the video, Shiffrin read one of her father’s favorite poems, thanked the many well-wishers who have sent messages of support, and asked that her family’s privacy continues to be respected.

“Over the last few weeks, my family and I have received an overwhelming amount of support and love,” she said.

High expectations

The thought that Shiffrin could match or even come close to the success of her record-setting 2018-19 year was ludicrous and unattainable. There’s a reason everyone was agog after she set a record with 17 World Cup wins (Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider won 14 in 1988-89) while winning her third consecutive World Cup championship, as well as globes in slalom (her sixth in seven seasons), giant slalom (her first) and super-G (a rather unexpected championship).

Shiffrin scored 2,204 points on the World Cup. That’s second all-time — men or women — only to Slovenia’s Tina Maze’s blockbuster 2012-13 season (2,414). Adding in the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Are, where she won slalom and super-G and took bronze in GS, in February 2019, Shiffrin won 19 of her 29 starts, a wonderfully absurd percentage —65.5.

While stipulating that Shiffrin in a generational athletic treasure, a lot of things had to go right for her to accomplish as much as she did in 2018-19. The super-G globe from that year is a perfect example.

Shiffrin skied brilliantly in the discipline winning three times and finishing fourth at the World Cup finals. (Victories at worlds do not count toward World Cup points.)

She also got a break or two along the way. She took off two weeks from speed events in February 2019 and both of those stops were canceled due to weather. The rest of the field lost two chances to gain on an idle Shiffrin in super-G. Shiffrin beat Austria’s Nicole Schmidhofer by 47 points (or just about half a race) for the title.

Because Shiffrin did not win in 2019-20 at the Herculean pace that she did in 2018-19, uneducated observers were wondering what was “wrong” with her.

“All I can say is- this season/this sport (my career)/this life is a marathon, not a sprint,” she tweeted, lending the proper perspective, in January.

Six victories

Speaking of perspective, it’s not like Shiffrin fell off the face of the earth by not maintaining her 2018-19 pace. She has won six times on tour this season, edging out rivals Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Italy’s Federica Brignone (five each) for most wins on the tour this winter.

Shiffrin still had days where she absolutely dominated — she won slaloms in Levi, Finland, by 1.79-seconds and in Killington, Vermont, by a whopping 2.29 seconds. Shiffrin topped the podium on back-to-back days in Lienz, Austria, in GS and slalom during December.

Keep in mind that she also managed to win in all four of the traditional disciplines in one season with downhill and super-G victories in Bansko, Bulgaria, at the end of January.

At the same time, there was bad luck, bad breaks and frustration. On Jan. 18 in Sestriere, Italy. Shiffrin finished 1-hundredth of a second off the pace in a GS. She finished third as Brignone and Vlhova tied for the win.

The next day, Shiffrin was the victim of a bad course set in parallel slalom, finishing ninth. Shiffrin was tactful as always, but when one course set produces 17 winners and the other three in 20 head-to-head matches, something’s wrong.

Some days, Shiffrin just wasn’t in the groove, as was the case when she finished 17th in a GS in Courchevel, France, in December.

Nonetheless, many ski racers would give vital organs for an “off year” like this.

This story includes reporting from an FIS news release.

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