To get a sense of which Alpine ski racers to keep an eye on during the Sochi Olympics, take a look at who is peaking at the right time.
One example: Exactly two weeks before competition is scheduled to begin at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, Lara Gut of Switzerland won the last pre-Sochi women’s World Cup speed race. Another: The day before Gut’s super-G victory, Tina Maze of Slovenia won a downhill, her only first-place finish this season.
Bode Miller, the 36-year-old who grew up in New Hampshire and already owns five Olympic medals, turned in a pair of top-three finishes in a downhill and super-G on Jan. 25-26. His U.S. teammate, 2006 Turin gold medalist Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah, won a giant slalom by 1½ seconds Sunday.
“Hopefully,” Ligety said, “I can carry that confidence over the next couple weeks.”
With the first Winter Games race — the men’s downhill — scheduled for next Sunday, here are five things to know about Alpine skiing:
ALPINE PRIMER: There are speed (downhill, super-G) and technical (slalom, giant slalom) events, plus the super combined, which, as the name implies, combines times from runs of downhill and slalom. Downhill is one run, with the longest course and fastest speeds; men can reach 75 mph. Slalom is two runs — different courses for each — with the shortest length and quickest turns through at least 50 gates. Giant slalom, also known as GS, is also two runs, with fewer gates spaced farther apart. Super-G is one run that’s sort of a hybrid of downhill and giant slalom; gates are spaced similarly to a giant slalom but with fewer turns and greater speed; it joined the Olympics in 1988.
SLOPPY SKIING?: Truth is, as U.S. women’s Alpine coach Alex Hoedlmoser points out, even the most talented athletes can flop on their sport’s most important days, so the skiing in Sochi might not always be of the highest quality. “A lot of people freeze up at big events. It just, like, freaks them out,” he says. “In training, we see a lot better skiing a lot of times than we do on the actual race day.”
TOP TEENS: Mikaela Shiffrin’s name will surely become familiar to U.S. sports fans; the 18-year-old from Colorado is favored in slalom and carries the tag “The Next Lindsey Vonn” (Vonn herself is sidelined after knee surgery). Another teen who could earn a medal: Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, 19, who won the last pre-Sochi World Cup slalom on Jan. 28. It was his third top-three finish in a slalom during January.
SOLO ARTISTS: Classical-pop violinist Vanessa-Mae’s manager has said she will represent Thailand on the Alpine slopes after meeting International Ski Federation qualifying criteria. The Singapore-born, London-raised musician competes as Vanessa Vanakorn, using her Thai father’s surname. Also worth watching: Zimbabwe’s first Winter Olympian, 20-year-old Luke Steyn, and Hubertus Von Hohenlohe, a German prince who competes for Mexico, turned 55 on Sunday, and is at his sixth Olympics.
WACKY WEATHER: Race after race was postponed four years ago at the Vancouver Games; this sport depends on acceptable weather. This past World Cup weekend showed what can go wrong: Too much snow in St. Moritz, Switzerland, scuttled downhill training, and fog Saturday forced cancellation of what was supposed to be the last speed race for men before Sochi. As it is, that race was moved from Germany because of a lack of snow there. Women’s races moved from one Slovenian resort to another because of a lack of snow, but rain and fog prompted officials to cancel a giant slalom at the new site. There’s no rain or snow in the forecast this week at the Olympic mountain, and the temperature is expected to hover around freezing.