Alpine skiing World Cup 2015 season review (I): The Austro-Slovenian Empire

1989 was undoubtedly a great year. The World Wide Web was invented, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War would be finished as the calendar was about to turn. However, for Austria, the last year of the 80´s may be also remembered one day as the birth year of two of the biggest sporting idols in the history of the country.
Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger were already the current gold standards of the country’s beloved skiing obsession and now share the glorious distinction as multiple World Cup overall Champions. Their 2015 titles were sealed on the last weekend at the French resort of Méribel, but until then both had to fight hard to see off the challenges provided by Norwegian speedster Kjetil Jansrud and Slovenian superstar Tina Maze.
This article will depict a five-month marathon to earn those shinning big crystal globes and pay respect to all those that dazzled on the snow to make up another unforgettable Alpine skiing season. As prerequisite, I’ll start with the ladies.
Women’s World Cup Review
Anna Fenninger had conquered the first World Cup (WC) title of his career at the end of 2014, but her worthiness was still at stake after a late season crash by Maria Hoefl-Riesch helped push her over the edge. Thus, with the German retired, Lindsay Vonn still nursing from two years marred by injuries, and Tina Maze coming off a lost season for his high standards, the Austrian had every reason to start the season on a roll and the inaugural sights did not disappoint. At the maiden race of the season, Fenninger shared with Mikaela Shiffrin the top place on the Giant Slalom (GS) podium at Solden and stamped a pole position for the long run. What nobody expected was the Salzburg-native inability to win again until the second month of 2015, and the rejuvenated Maze took the first slalom of the year, at Levi, a few weeks later to snag a lead she would hold through the months ahead.

Anna Fenninger and Mikaela Shiffrin shared the triumph at Solden

Only two stops in, the circus moved to the usual North American tour, and the racing days in Aspen (USA) and Lake Louise (CAN) would bring a familiar face back to the fold. Vonn, the four-time overall Champion, was back and all the rust she may have felt was gone on a pinch as she triumphed on the second Downhill (DH) event held on the Canadian resort, only a day after Maze beat Fenninger on the discipline’s first race of the year.
The third speed competition of the weekend, a Super G (SG), was snatched by Switzerland’s Lara Gut with Vonn and Maze coming right after, and the result prompted several observers to believe the American could challenge for the big globe. However, Vonn soon realized her form (and knee) wouldn’t hold an all-out challenge across multiple fronts and she smartly kept her focus on the speed races, a decision that would be proven absolutely right by the season’s end.
Back to Europe, Sweden’s Åre took over the technical festivities the lack of snow inhibited in Courchevel and, with 180 points (1st on the GS, 2nd on the Slalom (SL)) more on the pocket, Maze built an advantage of more than 250 points over the Austrian rival by mid-December, with Fenninger unable to get outside of the low-side of the top-ten classifications. Just before Christmas, although, the reigning Champion finished as the runner-up on the SG at Val D’Isére, and started a series of several 2nd places until the end of January that would bring her closer to the lead. Meanwhile, Maze was picking up precious points on slalom events during a part of the season dominated by the brilliance of Mikaela Shiffrin on the short skies, and the class of Vonn on the speed events, including her 63rd World Cup win at the SG of Cortina D’Ampezzo, beating the record of 62 WC wins set by Annemarie Moser-Proll.
The Americans seemed to be gaining steam ahead of the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships, but the stars of the event on the women’s side were yet again the pair at the helm of the World Cup rankings.
Fenninger edged Maze for 0.03 seconds at the SG, the first event of the Championships, and this win would broke whatever was holding the Austrian back, even though two days later it was time for the 31-year-old to smile, defeating the rival for a mere 0.02 seconds on the DH. Maze would also take gold on the super combined, an event Fenninger finished in fourth, but the table was turned yet again on the GS, with a spectacular performance delivering the first World Championship title for the discipline’s World Cup title-holder.

The Austro-Slovenian domination extended to the World Championships in Vail

Shiffrin would save an otherwise pale American performance on the women’s side – Vonn only left with a bronze medal on the Super-G – by renewing the slalom title, but the three medals amassed by each side of the Fenninger-Maze rivalry would leave no doubts about the brightest smiles at the return of the Wold Cup.
With Fenninger 284 points out of the top spot, the season resumed in Maze’s background, at Maribor, and it was precisely where no one expected it that the tide changed dramatically. The home heroin crashed on the GS’ first run, straddling the gates for Fenninger’s win, and the next day Maze failed to finish the slalom also, leaving the weekend full of doubts while his rival got a serious moral boost that grew even more with wins at the GS and combined event of Bansko.
Maze would reduce the losses in the Bulgarian resort with two second place finishes, and managed to keep the distance on the following stop, Germany’s Garmish-Partenkirchen, but the return to Åre brought another success to Fenninger on the GS and a change in the leader of the pack after Maze ended back in 20th.

Lindsey Vonn clinched both speed titles at Méribel

Heading into the season finale at Méribel, Fenninger was still fighting for the discipline’s globes in the Downhill and Super-G, trailing Lindsay Vonn in both, but the American made everything to avoid influence on the overall dispute after claiming victory in both events and, by virtue, both classifications. Fenninger was second on the SG and only eight on the DH, while Maze managed a third and a fifth, setting the stage to reclaim the lead by 18 points after the slalom, which she ended up in fourth.
The title was going to be decided on the last race of the season, with the Austrian trying to add the GS globe also, and the pressure was immense on both women. Leading after the first run, Fenninger was on the starting line when his rival failed to beat fellow Austrian Eva-Maria Brem on the second run and fought the nerves to secure his advantage and celebrate after crossing the finish line.At the end, just 22 points separated Maze from Fenninger’s 1553, with the 25-year-old conquering the big crystal globe for the second time on one of the tightest battles on World Cup history.
Breaking down the season of both women, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the Austrian had more podiums (15 to 13) and wins (6 to Maze’s 3), an essential factor in the contest since Fenninger is essentially a three disciplines skier (DH, SG, GS) while the Slovenian also races de slalom. The Overall Champion defeated the rival on the classification of all the three shared disciplines, ending behind Vonn on the downhill and Super-G, with Maze coming up third on both, and claiming the GS title with 542 points, more than doubling the 266 collected by Maze on his historically most successful event. The cushion added on the head-to-head competitions allowed Fenninger to rush to victory despite the third place (439 points) on the slalom classification achieved by Maze.

After a gruelling duel, Fenninger toppled Maze

Finishing on the final podium position, with 1087 points, Lindsey Vonn not only surpassed the record for most World Cup wins, set now at 67, but also added two more small globes to his impressive collection, raising the total to 19 (4 OV, 7 DH, 5 SG, 3 C), a female record. Furthermore, she equalled Annemarie Moser-Proll with the most DH titles of all-time (7) and German Katja Seizing in total Super-G titles (5), while her 113 podiums are tied with Moser-Proll for most of all-time on the women’s side. The 30-year-old American raced mostly on the speed events in 2015, winning a season-best 8 races, but has already promised to participate on the GS next season and challenge for her fifth overall title.
Meanwhile, her compatriot Mikaela Shiffrin ended the season in fourth on the overall classification after threatening to step in the middle of the fray during the first half of the season. The 20-year-old Vail-native added his third consecutive slalom crystal globe and renewed her World Championship title, but didn’t stop there, continuing to make strides towards the goal of becoming a real contender for the overall title by improving her performance on the GS. In fact, Shiffrin was third on the Kuhtai GS to supplement her maiden win in the discipline at Solden, and those results allowed her to step in the final podium position at Méribel on the season’s end. Her goal in 2016 is to experience the first Super-G events.

Mikaela Shiffrin won the third consecutive slalom WC title

After the two Americans, who collected over 1000 points, the difference for the rest of the pack was clear, as Nicole Hosp, the 2007 World Cup overall winner, closed the top 5 with 684 points. The 31-year-old Austrian celebrated a World Cup triumph for the first time since 2008, on the slalom event of Aspen, and her best memory from the year was also attained on American soil, with Hosp taking silver at the super combined race of the World Championships.
Two other Austrian veterans, 28-year-old technical specialist Kathrin Zettel and speedster Elizabeth Goergl came in 7th and 8th, respectively, on the overall classification, while Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter was 6th after challenging Mikaela Shiffrin’s slalom reign until the last race. The 29-year-old skier collected five WC podium finishes on the year, including the top position at Flachau plus the silver medal in the event at the World Championships, but came out disappointed for failing yet again to breakthrough. With Shiffrin just getting better, her time may never arrive.

Lara Gut didn’t have a lot to celebrate in 2015

Rapping up the top 10 were two skiers who started the year with big expectations but never managed to stay consistent. For Lara Gut, the problem isn’t new and the uber-talented Swiss showed her frustration several times over the year as the bad results kept piling up. After conquering seven races in 2014, the jewel of the Italian-speaking region of Ticino took a step backwards in 2015 by managing just two wins, at Lake Louise (SG) and St. Moritz (DH), and no other podium finishes. Gut dropped six spots from the third place on the overall classification obtained in 2014 and never stood a chance of retaining the Super-G title claimed on the previous season, although the year was brightened a little bit by the bronze medal picked up at the World Championships’ DH race.
On the other hand, Tina Weirather, recovered from the leg injury that cut short a promising 2014 season, battled hard to regain his best form all year and the results took some time to surface. Her first podium finish on the season came in Lake Louise, at the beginning of December, and she added three more during the year, culminating on a well-deserved triumph on the DH of Garmish-Partenkirchen. If she can rack up a good summer of training, the native of the Liechtenstein is poised to turn into a dark-horse on the list of contenders for the overall title in 2016.
If the top 10 in the overall classification had no surprises, the dispute of the disciplines globes’ saw some young guns emerge out of the shadow. Austrian Eva-Maria Brem fought till the very last minute with compatriot Anna Fenninger for the GS crystal globe and at the age of 26 figures to be a contender for the discipline for years to come. The skier born on the Tyrol region won a single event, in Aspen, but added four more podiums and a fourth place to end all seven GS races on the top 10. However, she flopped badly at the World Championships, quickly missing a gate on the first run of the competition.

Sarah Hector (center) beat Fenninger and Shiffrin on the GS of Kuhtai

Two spots behind Brem on the GS classification placed Sarah Hector, a young skier from Sweden who turned some heads after a runner up finish in Åre on December 12th, and later confirmed her qualities with the win at the Kuhtai in Tirol event. The 22-year-old Sandvike native would end the season with a 4th place at the final GS in Méribel, and her improvement will be closely watched in 2015-16 after she outshined more regarded compatriots like Jessica Lindell-Vikarby and Maria Pietilae-Holmner.
Finally, some words for the new Austrian prospect on the speed events, 22-year-old Cornelia Huetter, who almost medalled at the Super-G on the World Championships and picked up seven other top ten finishes over the year, a total that would render a top 5 classification on the final discipline standings.
More ladies deserved the spotlight, but this tale it’s already too long, so let’s move on to the men

(see next post)

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