As the World Cup turns, the White Circus soap opera kicks off its 2012-13 season in Soelden, Austria this weekend, with American athletes favored but still fuming about ski changes this season.
“I've been fast on the new skis in training and they perform well on hard snow conditions, but they are not as responsive in soft snow. How will they perform this season? We'll find out Sunday,” Park City’s Ted Ligety said in a release.
The defending Soelden giant slalom champion and 2006 Olympic gold medalist has been one of the most vocal critics of International Ski Federation (FIS) rule changes dictating longer skis and a longer turn radius for the coming season.
“It's going to take a lot more strength to turn the new skis, that's for sure,” Ligety added. “But we knew that and so I spent more time in the gym this summer than I ever have.”
Equally critical of the changes is Bode Miller, who won’t be racing in the opener on Sunday because he’s still recovering from knee surgery last spring in Vail. He recently had the knee scoped for evaluation and tweeted on Oct. 20, “The scab on my knee looks almost exactly like the beef jerky I was just eating.”
Good to know. Miller said late last month that the left knee injury that ended his season prematurely last spring is progressing nicely. American racing fans hope that means he’ll return to action in time to defend his Birds of Prey downhill title at Beaver Creek on Nov. 30.
Miller, 35, got married on Oct. 7 and has been teaching his new wife, professional volleyball player Morgan Miller, how to ski again after a 15-year layoff.
“No fights; no injuries -- 15 years off skis and she was passing people left and right,” Miller tweeted on Wednesday. “Like riding a bike.”
While Miller’s newly married, Vail’s Lindsey Vonn enters this season divorced from her husband and ski coach of four years, Thomas Vonn. The four-time overall champion and 2010 Olympic downhill gold medalist announced the split after pulling out of a World Cup slalom in Aspen last November.
Vonn won her first giant slalom ever at Soelden last year and will try to defend on Saturday.
“Winning in Soelden last season was incredibly special,” Vonn said in a release. “It set the tone for my year and I went on to score more giant slalom points than I did in the last three seasons combined. That was a huge factor in winning the back the overall and nearly breaking the World Cup points record.”
Vonn set a new women’s record with 1,980 World Cup points last season and just missed the men’s record of 2,000 points set by Hermann Maier in 2000.
That run at a men’s record prompted Matt Lauer to ask her on the Today Show last spring whether she’d ever considered just taking on the men.
“I train with the guys all the time. I definitely beat some guys,” Vonn told Lauer at the time. “We have some bets as to what the penalty is going to be if I beat them and I had some guys cleaning dishes for a while.”
Apparently that planted a seed, as Vonn made a formal request to the FIS to race against men in a downhill at Lake Louise, Canada next month. FIS officials were expected to consider the request next weekend.
Vonn “skied like a guy” en route to her first victory on U.S. snow in a super G at Beaver Creek last season. The Birds of Prey course usually only hosts men’s races but held a women’s event that was cancelled in Europe due to a lack of snow.
The all-time winningest American ski racer with 53 career victories, Vonn has been training this month at the U.S. Ski Team European Training Base in Soelden and hanging out with young athletes like Mikaela Shiffrin, a 17-year-old from Eagle-Vail who’s racing for the first time at Soelden.
“Girl’s night painting nails,” Vonn tweeted on Tuesday. “Shiffy painted mine and her own!”
Shiffrin, who picked up her first World Cup podium last season, said she’s more than ready to race on Saturday and not at all star-struck hanging out with athletes 10 years older than her.
“I feel like I should have more jitters than I actually do,” she said in a release. “We've been training in Soelden for a few weeks and so I've seen all of my heroes out on the hill. I think if I'd just shown up a day before the race and seen them, I'd be pretty nervous right now.”
After Soelden, American athletes will head back to Colorado to train at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain – a full-length downhill track – starting on Halloween. That’s nearly two weeks earlier than the Speed Center debuted last season.
And with a blast of fresh snow Wednesday and Thursday and much colder temperatures better suited for snowmaking, Vail officials said they hope to have the Golden Peak race arena open for slalom and giant slalom training in early November.
The U.S. Ski Team First Tracks celebration is set to officially name the American squad for the coming season starting at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15 at Arrabelle at Vail Square in Lionshead. Free (including hot cocoa and cookies) and open to the public, the family event is meant to send the team off in style.
“It's always fun for me to meet people who are as passionate about skiing as I am,” Vonn said of the third annual event. “The U.S. Ski Team naming in Vail is a blast and the community really comes out to support us.”
Vail opens with a new gondola for its 50th anniversary season the next day on Friday, Nov. 16.
Another Vail Olympian, 2006 bronze medalist mogul skier Toby Dawson, will be honored this weekend when the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, based in Vail, inducts him at its annual gala in Denver tonight (Friday, Oct. 26).