With the short Christmas break approaching, the last set of FIS Alpine World Cup races provided a grueling schedule. With nine races over ten days between the Men and Women’s series, the US Ski Team had highlights in the December 18th Men’s Downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, and the December 21st Women’s Giant Slalom in Courchevel.
Val Gardena is a staple on the Men’s World Cup Speed circuit and has held events on its ‘Saslong’ track since 1969. The Saslong is considered one of the five classic downhill races, along with the Hahnenkhamm in Kitzbuhel, Austria, Kandahar in Garmisch, Germany, Criterium in Val d’Isere, France, and of course the Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland. After two training days in the Italian valley, it seemed that most of the American team were competitive with the pace of the big guns on the speed circuit. Vermont’s Ryan Cochran-Siegle was the fastest on the first training day and was third on the second day. Fresh off a podium in Beaver Creek, Colorado, Travis Ganong also put himself in the top 10 in the first training run, and Jared Goldberg found the mark on the second training run. Bryce Bennett, however, seemed to be off the pace with training results of 41st and 22nd.
Any athlete will tell you the major differences between training runs and race day. The buzz in the air and excitement of competition elevates competitors to another level and pushes them to do remarkable things. That was exactly what happened with Bryce Bennett. 10th on the start list and coming down the course before many of the major Downhill players such as Switzerland’s Beat Fuez and Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr and Matthias Mayer, Bennett would be chasing the time of Austrian Otmar Striedinger. Striedinger had kicked the race off, being first from the start house, and was exceptionally clean through the infamous Kamelbuckel jumps, just over halfway down the course. Early in his run, Bennett was behind through the first few intervals but managed to make up time through the Kamelbuckel zone through precise landings on each of the relatively smaller flights. Bennett was 0.03s up on Striedinger with 20 seconds of racing to go.
Bennett was flawless through the finish line. With the end of the Saslong downhill being a true, straight downhill course, the 29-year-old from Truckee, California, stayed compact to the final jump. Bennett crossed the line 0.14s ahead of Striedinger’s time and jumped to the lead. His time of 2:02.42 would stand the test of Downhill veterans such as Matthias Mayer and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and allow Bennett to claim the first world cup podium and victory of his career. Bennett’s previous personal best was a fourth, also achieved in Val Gardena, the year prior. “I don’t know what happened today…’ said Bennett to official FIS interviewers, ‘I was telling myself to commit to the plan, no backing down… I saw the green light, and I knew it was a good run.’ Bennett capped off the day by taking a knee with his champagne bottle on the podium to the cheers of all the fans watching.
Three days after Bennett’s victory, the Women’s Giant Slalom in Courchevel, France, also brought success to the US Ski Team. The team had had a share of podiums in the speed races before the women’s return to the tech series, with a pair of 3rd places for Mikaela Shiffrin in Super G races in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Breezy Johnson taking 2nd at the Downhill in Val d’Isere, France. The pair of Courchevel Giant Slalom races bring the first technical races since a Slalom and a canceled Giant Slalom in Killington, Vermont, at the end of November. While team leader Mikaela Shiffrin has her share of accolades in speed disciplines, it’s no secret that technical races are where the 26-year-old Vail, Colorado native shines.
Shiffrin dominated the first run, coming down a whopping 0.74s ahead of the second-best run from Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin. With this strong first run, Shiffrin would be the last down the hill in the second run. Sweden’s Sara Hector was third after the first run and put down an absolute flyer of a lap for the second run. With only two more athletes at the top, Hector put herself solidly in the hot seat and would end up just sneaking ahead of Gisin after the second run. With an advantage of over a second on Hector after the first run, the race was Shiffrin’s to lose. Despite losing a fractional amount of time near the bottom of the run, Shiffrin’s skiing was visually calm, composed, and true to Shiffrin-style. Mikaela maintained the advantage on Hector and crossed the line for her 72nd World Cup victory and 113th World Cup podium. Shiffrin’s main title rival, Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova, ended in fourth.
Going into the winter break, the campaign for both the men’s and women’s Overall crystal globes is extremely heated. Shiffrin leads on the women’s side, but after a dominant campaign through the speed races, Italian Sophia Goggia sits in 2nd, only 45 points back from Shiffrin. Vlhova stays in the top three and leads for the Slalom Globe. Breezy Johnson is the second American and sits in 5th. Young Swiss phenom Marco Odermatt maintained his lead for the men’s globe, with podiums and wins throughout the last week. Odermatt enjoys a significant lead of 228 points on Downhill globe leader Matthias Mayer. Travis Ganong leads the American team, sitting in 21st, and Bryce Bennett jumps to 24th after his first win. Austria continues to lead the overall Nations Cup, with Switzerland in second and Italy in third. The US team sits 5th overall but is 4th in the Women’s Nations Cup.
The Snow-Circus continues after a Holiday Break. The men head to Bormio, Italy, for another classic set of speed races. Bormio hosts two Downhills on December 28th & 29th and a Super-G on the 30th. The women head to Lienz, Austria, for a set of tech races. Mikaela will lead the charge into a Giant Slalom on the 28th and a Slalom on the 29th. Both series will meet in Zagreb, Croatia, for the first set of races of 2022. Zagreb hosts two Slalom night-races with the Women racing on January 4th and the men on January 5th.
Full results and schedule can be found on fis-ski.com