Alpine Skiing: The Changing Faces of the Women's World Cup Scene

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Alpine Skiing: The Changing Faces of the Women's World Cup Scene
Armando Trovati/Associated Press
Anna Fenninger and Lara Gut celebrate at World Cup Finals week in Lenzerheide last spring. How will two of Alpine skiing's younger stars fare this upcoming season?

As is the norm for many athletes these days, Alpine skiers from the World Cup circuit have been sharing their offseason exploits on social media.

Holidays, sightseeing, family time, promotional work, awards shows and more latterly preparation for the upcoming season—it is all there documented in photos, posts and videos.

For 2014 World Cup downhill winner and Winter Olympic combined gold medalist Maria Hoefl-Riesch, there has been a more relaxed air, even a valedictory quality to her contributions. As pictured below, she was asked to ceremonially carry the trophy onto the pitch ahead of the German Cup final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund:

That is in part because this past March, the 29-year-old announced her decision to retire from skiing. Speaking to the official website of the International Ski Federation (FIS), she said:

The decision has been made: I'm finishing my career as an active skier.

I gave everything I had for another Olympic medal, I worked hard to fulfill this dream again. It went well in the super combined in Sochi, and this was a big relief for me. The decision was not easy but I am of the opinion you should stop when you are at your best.

Hoefl-Riesch performed at a high level right through to the end of her final season; in addition to her Sochi success she won three times in the World Cup. But for her downhill crash during World Cup Finals week in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, she might have added a second overall title to her considerable CV (her first coming in 2011).

Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Maria Hoefl-Riesch was airlifted off the course after crashing in the downhill at Finals week. Although not a factor in her decision to retire, it was a sad conclusion to the German's great career.

As a result of Hoefl-Riesch's absence from the remainder of the week's racing, Austria's Anna Fenninger was able to secure enough points to take the prestigious crystal globe for the women's overall.

Coinciding with Hoefl-Riesch's retirement and the injury-exacerbated struggle of Lindsey Vonn—her closest rival in recent years—to return to full fitness, Fenninger's success has led the charge of several younger competitors working to the top of the sport.

Second in the downhill and super-G standings and first in the giant slalom, except for the aforementioned German Fenninger was as consistent as they came in 2013-14.

Early season podium places and a second consecutive year-ending win in the GS (this time on home snow in Lienz) established a base of form on which the 25-year-old built in impressive style from the Winter Olympics onward.

Nisse Schmidt/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Fenninger takes on the second of two giant slalom races in Are in a memorable March weekend for the Austrian.

In Russia at the Games, Fenninger secured downhill bronze, giant slalom silver and super-G gold in between. After that, a second-place finish in the Crans Montana downhill set her up nicely for the second place in those standings which she would secure in Lenzerheide in March.

Most notably, successive GS victories in the Swedish resort in Are proved crucial in Fenninger beating Jessica Lindell-Vikarby to top spot by the close of play in Switzerland.

A 2011 world champion in the super combined, Fenninger was not without previous achievement. But having again upped her number of wins for a single season, 2014 could come to be regarded as a breakthrough year.

As already noted, the Austrian was not alone in this regard among the younger generation. In the speed events, Lara Gut and Tina Weirather featured prominently among the higher placings, significantly improving on their previous efforts in World Cup competition too.

Christophe Ena/Associated Press
Having led the Liechtenstein team out at the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony, Tina Weirather tried her luck in training runs but injury was to force her out.

Injury decimated the last two months of the season for Liechtenstein's Weirather, though she still finished third in the super-G standings, two places behind Gut. Speaking of whom, the Swiss began the year excellently and finished it just as strongly. Taking seven World Cup victories and a downhill bronze in Sochi, her bigger aims were only let down by a slightly stuttering midseason.

Then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

Already a world and Olympic champion in slalom by the age of 19, in March she took a second World Cup title in a row in the discipline. Now improvements in the giant slalom are being parlayed into a gradual move into the speed events.

Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Mikaela Shiffrin and Ted Ligety were the stars of the 2014 season for the US Ski team.

"I like speed a lot," Shiffrin told the New York Times' Kelley McMillan in March. "I’ve done it quite a bit, just not at this level." Her mother and coach Eileen Shiffrin added: "Super-G is totally a logical transition for someone Mikaela’s age. It’s a crossover with GS"

For those unfamiliar, McMillian's piece offers a further explanation of the basics of the transition Shiffrin Jr. will undertake. Essentially, though, it has a good chance of sticking given how good she has already proven to be. For now, the American's current focus at training camp in New Zealand is in the technical disciplines in which she has made her name.

Change may be in the air on the slopes of Europe and North America, but only to an extent. For all the promise shown—and increasingly being substantiated—by the aforementioned names, those closer to or over 30 are still firmly in the discussion for honours. Age is but a number, after all.

Marco Tacca/Associated Press/Associated Press
Lindsey Vonn's hope of making the 2014 Olympics was not to be. After further knee surgery she has turned her attentions to next year's World Championships.

Speaking to Today.com's Vidya Rao last December, Shiffrin scoffed at descriptions of her being "the new Lindsey Vonn," stating "she’s not even really close to done. Let her have her success and let me have my own—just call me Mikaela Shiffrin."

Vonn would subsequently require further surgery on the knee injury she suffered the previous February and missed the Olympics. But Shiffrin's sentiment about her team-mate was a smart one even prior to then. Although challenges await, it would be foolish to write off someone as successful and determined as Vonn.

Among those also attempting to ensure the sport's emerging stars do not have it all their own way will be Slovenia's Tina Maze.

The 31-year-old won gold in the GS and downhill at Sochi (the latter shared with Dominique Gisin). After changing coaches during the season, Maze will surely aim for a less eventful time in the hope she might replicate her outstanding 2013 run of success.

David Goldman/Associated Press
Marlies Schild is one of the "older guard" who will be attempting to give younger stars like Shiffrin a good run for their money this season. The latter will be respectfully wary.

The Swede Lindell-Vikarby, America's Julia Mancuso and Austrians Elisabeth Goergl and Marlies Schild all had their moments last year too. Schild owns the record for most World Cup slalom wins and seems just about the only woman capable of slowing Shiffrin's run of success there.

The World Cup season starts for the women on Saturday, October 25 with a giant slalom run in Soeldon, Austria. The World Championships in Vail/Beaver Creek, rather than the Olympics, are this year's auxiliary objective.

With Hoefl-Riesch gone there is a little extra room for someone to earn some success. Some of the younger competitors on the women's circuit will be planning to use it to cement their own credentials.

They have shown they are capable of doing it. The excitement lies in seeing just how the older guard respond.

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