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Anticipation and expectations were high for the opening World Cup races in Sölden, Austria this weekend, and the racers did not disappoint. In the first giant slalom of the season, Mikaela Shiffrin nabbed her 70th World Cup victory and led three other U.S. women in the top 30, marking the best team result for the U.S. women in the giant slalom event in recent history. On the men’s side, American up-and-comer River Radamus stunned crowds by skiing his way up from bib 26 to grab a career-best 6th place World Cup finish.
Race conditions couldn’t have been more favorable for the opening races of the 2021-’22 World Cup Tour in Sölden. A clear blue sky hung over a perfectly prepared course on the Rettenbach glacier for both the women’s race on Saturday and the men’s race on Sunday, and for the first time in more than a year, fans and spectators once again cheered the racers in the finish area.
Wearing bib number 1, Shiffrin kicked off the weekend of racing with a tight, clean first run down a course set by U.S. coach Mike Day. Her first run time stood the test of the following two racers—Italy’s Marta Bassino, winner of the 2021 Giant Slalom Crystal Globe, and fellow Italian Federica Brignone, the 2020 GS World Cup Champion. Bassino, starting with bib 3, crashed out of the course and collected a DNF, while Brignone made a few costly mistakes and crossed the finish with a disappointing first run time.
Slovenia’s Petra Vlhova, the 2021 Overall World Cup Champion and a long standing rival of Shiffrin’s, also got off to a shaky start and crossed the finish line 0.79 seconds off Shifrrin’s first run time to land in 6th place.
In the end it was Switzerland’s Lara Gut-Behrami, a veteran with 300 World Cup starts under her belt and the 2021 World Cup Super-G champ, who knocked Shiffrin out of the leader’s chair when she crossed the finish just 0.02 faster than Shiffrin.
With so many predicted frontrunners outside of the top-10 after the first run, the second run turned into a showdown between those willing to put it all on the line and risk it all down the steepest section of the course.
Vlhova attacked the second run and crossed the finish with enough of a lead to stave off the next three racers, good enough to put her in a podium position. But then Shiffrin came down, and where other racers struggled to keep their line high and tight, Shiffrin made precise turns and showcased the technically excellent skiing she’s known for and crossed the finish a whopping 1.30 seconds faster than Vlhova.
That huge margin proved too much even for Gut-Behrami to overcome, who followed her strong first run with an even stronger second run, but finished 0.14 behind Shiffrin’s combined time. In the end Gut-Behrami was forced to settle for second, with Vlhova rounding out the podium in third.
Watch: Shiffrin’s Winning Second Run in 2021 Sölden GS
Shiffrin’s win on Saturday marks her 70th World Cup victory, and at 26 years old, she’s now just 14 wins shy of Lindsey Vonn’s World Cup total and 16 shy of the record held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.
“70 [wins]—that’s incredible,” Shiffrin acknowledged after the race. “My goal today was to ski well, of course, and with fire. And that’s what I’m most proud of—to be able to do that in the first race of the season. In the first race there’s always this nervous feeling and the question of ‘Can I win again.’”
The answer, quite clearly, is yes. A victory in the first race of the season is always a nice confidence-boost for racers, but it’s especially auspicious in an Olympic season, when everyone is hungry to prove themselves.
Shiffrin credits the fierce competition, including her teammates and fellow Sölden starters Nina O’Brien, AJ Hurt, and Paula Moltzan for continually pushing her to perform her best.
“My teammates are pushing the pace really high, so I’m pushing too, and it’s been a really good build-up to the season,” Shiffrin reflected. “I see them skiing and think, ‘I have to keep raising my level too, because you’re here and you’re hungry … and everybody’s hungry, and I feel that motivation.”
All three of Shiffrin’s teammates landed in the top 30 to collect points in Saturday’s race, with Moltzan finishing 23rd, Hurt in 20th, and O’Brien impressing with a career-best 9th place.
“I showed some good skiing. I feel like I have more, but all in all I’m satisfied,” O’Brien said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a taste of top-level skiing, which feels really good, to show people I can be up there with the top-level girls. I didn’t quite show it today, but hopefully I can find those good turns and good skiing in the next races.”
On the men’s side, 23-year-old River Radamus, sporting an elaborate leopard-print haircut, led the charge for the U.S. Ski Team. The National Champion in super-G showed promise on the World Cup circuit last season after clinching a number of top-30 finishes.
But in Sunday’s race, he stunned the world by skiing his way up from the back of the pack to land in 9th after the first run, then climb up to 6th overall after the second run—despite significant errors that required mind-boggling recoveries. Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt finished first with Austria’s Roland Leitinger and Slovenia’s Zan Kranjec in second and third, respectively.
“I really felt like I’ve had a lot of races where I’ve done well the first run, and haven’t been able to execute the same way on second run,” Radamus told U.S. Ski and Snowboard after the race. “So I really, really tried to make sure I left it all out there and made sure I left no regrets on the table.”
Radamus’ teammate Ryan Cochran-Siegle, a speed specialist returning to racing for the first time since sustaining a “minor” broken neck in the Hahnenkamm race in February, also started in Sunday’s GS but failed to qualify for the second run by one-hundredth of a second.
However, with five athletes finishing in the top 30 to collect World Cup points, the U.S. Ski Team had their best showing in any GS event in years, and it’s a hopeful sign of things to come during this Olympic season.
“It’s so amazing to have the pace coming from the United States,” Shiffrin said. “That’s special. I’ve never experienced that, in this way, in my career so far … so it’s really cool.”
The next stop on the 2021-’22 World Cup circuit is in Lech, Austria on Nov. 13-14, where both the men and women will go head to head in the first parallel event of the season.