Gold Medal Hunting

Ligety leads American racers as season opens in Austria; U.S. skiers look ahead to Feburary’s Olympic Games
SOELDEN, Austria
By Brian Pinelli

Gold Medal Hunting Olympic Games. Ted Ligety continued his dominance, Bode Miller returned to the racehill and teenage talent Mikaela Shiffrin sped to a career best, as the 2013-14 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup season began in scenic Soelden, Austria, this past weekend.

It was an auspicious start to the season for the U.S. Ski Team as the countdown to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, reaches 100 days this Wednesday.

Fifteen-thousand enthusiastic Austrian ski racing fanatics looked on as Ligety once again demonstrated that he is – without a doubt – the world’s premier giant slalom racer, putting on a victory clinic for the third consecutive time at the Tyrolean resort nestled just southwest of Innsbruck.

His margin of victory wasn’t the absurd 2.75 seconds of a year ago, however Ligety still clocked a substantial 0.79 faster than his nearest challenger, rising star Alexis Pinturault of France, and was 1.02 seconds better than last season’s overall World Cup champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria.

The 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, equaled Hermann Maier’s three career wins in Soelden, however the Austrian legend wasn’t able to string them together like white Bavarian sausages or as Ted did. Ligety currently has 18 career GS wins, only trailing Switzerland’s Michael von Gruenigen (23) and Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark (46).

“I’m very confident with where I am right now, ” Ligety said when asked about being in the prime of his career. “As you get older, you kind of figure a way to approach races smarter, but also in a way that allows you to be faster and more consistent.”

Ligety’s consistency in GS, in which he has captured four world cup titles and two world championship victories, has made him the prohibitive favorite in the purest of ski disciplines for the Sochi Games. The easy-going, yet fiercely determined racer should also contend for hardware in super-G and combined.

“I think the best preparation for the Olympics is the World Cup season because it gives you the confidence and keeps you sharp,” Ligety said. “The whole competitive atmosphere gives you the ability to really bring your best skiing to the Olympics.

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One day prior to the “Ligety Show,” the ladies had their chance on the Rettenbach glacier. Shiffrin – the 18-year-old sensation who astonished the international ski world winning four world cup slaloms, a world slalom title and then stealing the world cup slalom globe from Tina Maze last season – achieved a career best 6th in giant slalom.  If not for a costly mistake approaching the lower flats leading to the finish, Shiffrin would have been standing on the podium.

“It was a pretty good day,” Shiffrin told reporters in the finish area. “I think everyday I’m on snow, it’s a piece of confidence for me and today was definitely a piece of that.”

The immensely skilled teenager is poised to make her Olympic debut in February, where she will likely be among the favorites in slalom at the Rosa Khutor alpine venue.

“I have no idea what it’s going to be like,” Shiffrin said about her expectations for Sochi. “At least far as racing, I know that I’m going to be comfortable from start to finish. I hear there’s a lot going on in Sochi, so it will be a new experience.”

Julia Mancuso – the 2006 Olympic giant slalom champion – struggled in her morning run, finishing 31st, 4.01 seconds off the pace and seemingly failing to qualify for the afternoon run. However, when Japanese skier Emi Hasegawa was disqualified for an equipment violation, Mancuso suddenly was back in the top 30 mix.

Mancuso managed a disappointing 27th overall, 3.69 seconds behind Swiss racer Lara Gut’s winning time. Despite the slow start to her season, the laid-back Californian didn’t seem overly concerned.

“I guess I wasn’t in race mode – it’s more difficult when you’re skiing good because you feel like you have something to lose and you hold back a little,” Mancuso said. “But it’s still fun and good to get the first race out of the way. I’m not too worried.”

“Super Jules” is gunning for her fourth Olympic Games in Sochi, hoping to add to her two silver medals from Vancouver 2010 and a gold in GS from Torino 2006.

Lindsey Vonn, who is still recovering from right knee surgery – the unfortunate result of a scary crash at last February’s world championships, where she tore both her ACL and MCL – opted to skip the opening race in Soelden and return home to Colorado to continue the road back.

Vonn, the most decorated U.S. ski racer in history, is hoping to return to action at World Cup races in Beaver Creek, Colorado, Nov. 29-Dec. 1.

The 2010 Olympic downhill champion and four-time overall World Cup winner is striving to be back in top form for the Games in February.

And then there was Bode Miller, who hasn’t competed in a World Cup race since February 2011, having sat out all of last season while recovering from micro-fracture knee surgery, making his much anticipated return. The 36-year-old veteran skied respectably, finishing 19th, 3.29 seconds behind Ligety.

“It was exciting. I was nervous. I want to win still,” Miller said in the Soelden finish area. “I definitely have the fire still and it’s coming together.

“I think I definitely have the ability to ski at a whole new level,” said Miller, who ranks seventh all-time with 33 world cup victories.

The New Hampshire native, who now resides in San Diego with his wife Morgan, a pro beach volleyball player, claimed one of each color medal in Vancouver 2010 and also has two silvers from Salt Lake City 2002. If all goes well this season, Miller will make his fifth trip to the Olympic Games in February.

Miller, Ligety, Vonn and Mancuso should lead a deep and talented squad of previous World Cup winners with the sublime task of improving upon their eight medal haul from Vancouver 2010, when they take to the race courses of Rosa Khutor, at the Sochi Olympic Games, Feb. 7-23.

Follow Brian on Twitter – @Brian_Pinelli

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