Though some winter sports — including figure skating and speed skating — have already begun a holiday-induced hiatus, there was plenty of intrigue to be found on the World Cup circuit this past weekend. Here’s a look at some of the highlights:
Gut and Glory
It’s more than fair to debate whether youth is an impediment or a benefit to those competing in a sport where fear plays a significant role. Are you better off being older and thereby having the experience of having fallen (and risen) that many additional times, or is it advantageous to be young, wide-eyed and presumably not know any better?
In the case of Switzerland’s Lara Gut, age was clearly not a hindrance this past weekend in St. Moritz, Switzerland (site of the 1928 and 1948 Olympic Winter Games), where the 17-year-old claimed her first career World Cup victory in a super-G, becoming the youngest woman ever to win an alpine skiing World Cup.
Meanwhile, reigning overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. had a quiet weekend (including a DNF in the super-G and a 20th in the downhill), but retained her overall lead in the World Cup standings, with 438 points to Tanja Poutiainen of Finland’s 400.
The Importance of Perseverance
On the subject of ages, a notable name surfaced in the men’s alpine results in Val Gardena, Italy, as Sweden’s Patrik Jaerbyn finished third in a World Cup super-G. This is notable not just because of Jaerbyn’s age (at 39, he’s the oldest competitor on the entire World Cup circuit), but also because it was just the third time he’s reached a World Cup podium in 258 races dating back to 1992 (his other podium finishes came in 1998 and 2006).
The Kostelic Family Legacy
Croatia has won seven medals at the Olympic Winter Games, all of them accounted for by alpine skiing siblings Janica and Ivica Kostelic. Over the years, most of that medal-winning burden has been carried by Janica, who can lay claim to six of her nation’s seven medals (four in Salt Lake City, two in Torino). Janica has now retired, but her older brother, Ivica, is still competing – and hopes to ski until 2014. This past weekend, the 2006 Olympic combined silver medalist proved he has a legitimate chance to add to the family’s medal-winning tradition by finishing first in a World Cup slalom and second in a giant slalom race.
It’s Called Depth
On Saturday in Val Gardena, Italy, the U.S. men’s alpine skiing team made history by placing five skiers in the top-10 of a downhill, the first time five American men have ever reached the top-10 in the same World Cup race. The enigmatic but undeniably talented Bode Miller placed second with Marco Sullivan fourth, Erik Fisher seventh, Steve Nyman ninth and T.J. Lanning 10th. One day later, 2006 Olympic combined champion Ted Ligety placed fourth in a giant slalom and is now the top American man (10th) in this season’s World Cup standings (Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the 2006-07 overall champion, still holds the lead).
Big Names on Snowboards
Reigning Olympic snowboard cross champion Seth Wescott has dealt with injuries since his triumph in Torino, but this past weekend in Arosa, Switzerland, the 32-year-old veteran won his first World Cup competition in 56 tries, a clear statement that Wescott remains more than capable of defending his Olympic crown in 2010.
Elsewhere, 2006 Olympic halfpipe silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler won the superpipe competition at the inaugural Winter Dew Tour event in Breckenridge, Colorado, with 2002 Olympic champion Kelly Clark finishing second. In the men’s competition, reigning Olympic halfpipe champion and Vancouver gold medal favorite Shaun White narrowly finished second to 20-year-old Danny Davis.
Flying Australians with Reconstructed Knees
Freestyle skiing’s World Cup campaign is finally underway, and two names that stood out during the 2008-09 season’s opening aerials competitions at China’s Adventure Mountain were Lydia Lassila and Jacqui Cooper of Australia.
Lassila (born Lydia Ierodiaconou but now married to retired Finnish moguls skier Lauri Lassila) appeared certain to miss the Torino Games after suffering a torn ACL in June 2005. However, after having a cadaver’s Achilles’ tendon grafted onto her damaged knee, she was able to compete in Torino, only to have the ligament tear once again (and induce an agonizing, unforgettable scream) during the qualifying round of the 2006 Games. Now, the 26-year-old aerialist is back in peak form, having recorded a victory and a third place in the first two World Cup competitions this season.
Lassila’s teammate, Cooper, has her own story of ill-fated combusting knees. The three-time reigning World Cup aerials champion entering the Salt Lake Games, Cooper suffered a debilitating knee injury just three days after the 2002 Opening Ceremony. The injury required five surgeries (four on the knee, and one on her hip), leading Cooper to miss the 2002 Games and each of the following two seasons. Cooper returned to place eighth in Torino, and has improbably continued to compete at a high level into her mid-30’s. The soon-to-be 36-year-old won back-to-back World Cup crowns in 2007 and 2008, and finished as runner-up in the season-opening aerials competition this weekend.
Demong is the Name
The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in the hybrid of ski jumping and cross-country skiing known as nordic combined. But as the Vancouver Games draw nearer, Bill Demong continues to build his credentials with a mind toward ending that drought. The 28-year-old now ranks third in the World Cup standings (93 points behind leader Anssi Koivuranta of Finland) after placing first and second in two competitions held in Ramsau, Austria.