Alpine Skiing: Storylines of the World Cup Season so Far Heading into Sochi 2014
There may be just a month to go to the Sochi Winter Olympics, but the Alpine skiing season has been well under way since late October.
Even with the quest for gold in Russia at the forefront of most people's minds, there has been plenty to savor and discuss from the ongoing World Cup. Of course, much of the latter is informing what may be ahead in next month's games.
Over the following few pages, we will look back at the storylines of the season so far, taking in the Men and Women's World Cup circuits across all main disciplines.
We begin with the U.S. ski team, a group of who have had a decidedly mixed winter thus far.
Vonn's Injury Woes Lead Rough Season for US' Big Names
Lindsey Vonn's decision to call time on her almost-year long fight to be fit for the Sochi Winter Olympics was a disappointing conclusion to her efforts.
Understandably "devastated," the 2010 Olympic downhill champion and super-G bronze medalist described in a statement on her Facebook page how "the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level."
Vonn originally injured her knee at the start of last year's World Championships in Schladming, Austria. Having embarked on a lengthy rehabilitation process, she was back in training with the U.S. ski team by late summer.
Despite hurting her knee again ahead of her planned return at the U.S. resort Beaver Creek meet in late-November, Vonn was back in action at Canada's Lake Louise within a couple of weeks. There she recorded a spirit-lifting fifth place finish in the super-G.
The incident on her downhill run at Val d'Isere just prior to Christmas, which would lead to the 29-year-old's season coming to an end, appeared somewhat innocuous at first. She appeared to lose balance after rounding a corner but stayed on her skis, albeit at the expense of her race—as seen on the FIS YouTube page's highlights at the 1:46 mark.
Vonn revealed afterward her problematic right knee had given way, telling BBC Sport "my knee is loose and it's not stable, and that's the way it's going to be from here on out."
Hopes that careful management and race selection would see her through to Sochi have unfortunately not worked out.
High-profile United States teammates of Vonn's have had frustrating spells of their own, though through matters of form rather than fitness.
Bode Miller sat out last season's World Cup as he rested his surgically repaired left knee. He told SportsIllustrated.com last January, "I am super motivated to do great things next year."
The possibility for such achievements remain alive, but results have largely eluded him for the time being on his comeback. The exceptions being second in December's giant slalom at Beaver Creek and a decent fifth in downhill at Val Gardena/Groden later that month.
While Miller has at least been in contention on occasion (and is eighth in the overall standings), his fellow one-time Olympic champion Julia Mancuso has endured a fruitless couple of months with not a single podium place to speak of.
As pointed out by The Denver Post's John Meyer, the absence of Vonn will allow Mancuso to step into more of the limelight (should she so desire). But doing so successfully will require her stepping up in a campaign that has so far flattered to deceive.
Ligety and Shiffrin Have Kept Things Up on the Technical Side
Feelings of despondency may have threatened to overwhelm the U.S. ski team if not for the steady success of Ted Ligety and, in particular, Mikaela Shiffrin this season.
After taking World Championships gold in slalom and multiple World Cup wins last year, teenage sensation Shiffrin has carried on where she left off in the build up to the Olympics.
The technical specialist topped the season's first slalom in Levi, Finland back in mid-November and won last week in Bormio, Italy too. Shiffrin currently sits atop of the discipline's World Cup rankings.
Giant slalom has also been kind to the 18-year-old who has recorded a couple of encouraging podium places.
As Bleacher Report's Lindsay Gibbs has detailed, Shiffrin is on course to be one of the United States' main attractions of a Vonn-less games. With races still to be won before then, she will need to avoid any unnecessary distractions.
Ligety does not top the standings in his preferred giant slalom, however, he should be quietly optimistic about his own pre-Sochi form.
The reigning World Champion and World Cup title holder in the discipline was among the most consistent early on in the season, as demonstrated by his successes in Soeldon, Austria and Beaver Creek.
While among the places since then, Ligety has fallen short to one of his main rivals in his crack at the two subsequent giant slalom runs.
Schild and Hirscher Leading by Example for Austria
Occupying adversarial roles to Shiffrin and Ligety, Marlies Schild and Marcel Hirscher have not just been defined by the rivalries that will still likely form a large part of 2014 for the Austrian pair.
Schild notably ascended to the top of the all-time World Cup slalom wins list with her 34th and 35th victories just prior to the turn of the year.
An injury-plagued few years for the veteran were put to one side in a December she will long remember. Win No. 34 came in Courchevel, France, where she was joined by her sister Bernadette on the podium in third place.
Just under two weeks later, Schild remedied a slightly disappointing first run with an altogether more satisfactory second that saw her come from behind to beat Shiffrin and take a little slice of history. The cherry on top was that it came in Lienz, in her native Austria.
"My 34th win was a weight off my shoulders," Schild told the Associated Press. "Suddenly everything got easier in training though racing is still something different."
Hirscher came out top in the season's third and fourth giant slalom races in Val d'Isere and Alta Badia, Italy respectively. He currently leads Ligety by 60 points in the standings, having earned an extra podium spot ahead of the American so far.
Hopes of retaining his slalom title are very much alive for Hirscher too, with compatriot Mario Matt just 20 points ahead.
Regaining the overall crown may prove trickier, thanks to the efforts of a certain Norwegian...
Svindal and Hoefl-Riesch Top the Overall Tables Heading into Mid-January
Beacons of consistency, Aksel Lund Svindal and Maria Hoefl-Riesch are deserved table toppers of the overall World Cup standings.
The reigning Olympic champion in super-G, Svindal's win in the discipline at Lake Louise and Val Gardena/Groden have him just under a 100 points ahead of nearest placed Patrick Keung.
Downhill victories at Beaver Creek and Bormio have set up the Norwegian star as the man to beat there also. Svindal will be keen for that form to hold into Sochi as he looks to improve on the silver he took at Vancouver in 2010.
While Svindal will need to fall away considerably to lose his grasp on the Men's overall title, Hoefl-Riesch is facing a battle to take the ladies' version.
She is only two points ahead of Tina Weirather as things stand, with Anna Fenninger and Lara Gut not far behind.
Hoefl-Riesch's versatility will count in her favor as she looks to hold on here and prepare for defences of her slalom and combined crowns at the Olympics.
The German has enjoyed steady to excellent form in all main disciplines so far in the World Cup.
In the top ten for slalom and super-G, downhill has been the standout for Hoefl-Riesch.
Victories in the two December runs in Lake Louise have given her the edge in that competition—the one to have been out of reach for her in terms of gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships in her otherwise glittering career.
The Best of the Rest: Ladies
The early going of the Alpine skiing season was undeniably lit up by Switzerland's Lara Gut.
By the middle of December, the 22-year-old had chalked up four wins, making it already the most successful year of her fledgling career.
The season opening giant slalom in Soeldon was followed up just over a month later by a terrific showing in Beaver Creek where Gut won in downhill and super-G. Another super-G success at Lake Louise has been the sole victory since that early flurry, though the World Champions remains at the head of the table there.
Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather is—as already noted—second in the overall standings.
Firsts in the super-G at St.Moritz, Switzerland and in the giant slalom at Val d'Isere unsurprisingly played a big part in that. Multiple podium spots have also lent to her case for nipping ahead of Hoefl-Riesch.
Anna Fenninger has come to cherish December 28. For the third year in a row, she won a World Cup race on the date, this time it was the giant slalom in Lienz.
"It's funny that I've done again on the 28th," Fenninger said to the Associated Press. "I came here full of good memories and I tried to build on that feeling. I've learned a lot in recent years. I used to get distracted easily at races in Austria but now I use the home support as positive energy."
Outside of Marlies Schild in slalom, Fenninger is the pick of the Austrian women, retaining decent positions in the other competitions.
Any hopes Tina Maze had of retaining her overall World Cup title look to be disappearing after a slow start to the season. The Slovenian might not mind if she can better her two silvers from Vancouver next month.
Swedish pair Maria Pietilae-Holmner and Jessica Lindell-Vikarby have enjoyed bright starts to the season, with the latter currently topping the giant slalom standings.
Meanwhile Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden of Switzerland is in contention for the downhill competition after her win in Val d'Isere last month.
The Best of the Rest: Men
Erik Guay's Christmas was one to remember as a first place in Val Gardena/Groden and a third in Bormio saw the Canadian race into contention for downhill honors.
The 2011 World Champion remains 93 points behind Aksel Lund Svindal but will be as good a bet as any to challenge if he can carry on in 2014 where he left off.
Two second place finishes in Beaver Creek and Bormio have left Hannes Reichelt as the best placed Austrian in downhill and the overall standings. Mario Matt tops the slalom competition for the time being.
France's Alexis Pinturault has recorded four top-five finishes. Two second places in giant slalom—including the most recent one in Alta Badia, Italy—have been the pick of the bunch.
Elsewhere, sporadic showings of form for the likes of Felix Neureuther (Germany), Patrick Keung (Switzerland) and Adrien Theaux (France) leave them among the other standouts of the season thus far.
With a few weeks of racing left before we reach Sochi, there is still ample opportunity for plenty of men and women on the World Cup tour to get a taste of victory before the pursuit for gold begins.