Mikaela Shiffrin returns to the racecourse after disappointing early exits from the giant slalom and slalom this week. She is seeking the kind of authoritative run that has been a hallmark of her career — and strangely absent in those two races. But it’s worth understanding how this upcoming race, the super-G, on Friday morning (Thursday night in the United States), will pose demanding, new challenges for her.
The fact is, Shiffrin spent most of this winter prepping to peak for the giant slalom and slalom, the two shortest, least speedy Alpine race disciplines, which makes her performances in them on Monday and Wednesday so inexplicable. Now she heads to the super-G and the downhill, races that are far greater in length, steepness of pitch and speed. But because of a back injury she struggled with in late October and November and a Covid quarantine prompted by a positive test in late December, most of the training she planned this season for these upcoming events never happened.
To many sports fans, the Alpine races may not seem dissimilar. But they are as varied as the Olympic 100-meter and 5,000-meter competitions in track.
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In Shiffrin’s words, the slalom’s rapid turns and rat-a-tat contact with gates mimic something from today’s hits, like a song with a fast-paced, driving beat. The downhill and the super-G, she said, are more like a symphony with notes held for several long rhythmic passages.
But that does not explain all of the differences. Shiffrin, for example, was traveling at maybe 25 miles an hour in the slalom on Monday because there were more than 50 gates. She could reach speeds of up to 65 miles an hour in the super-G on Friday because there are many fewer gates spaced much farther apart.
In a slalom, if a racer’s feet leave the snow something has gone very wrong, while in the super-G racers often soar off jumps for 40 yards.
Even the equipment is drastically different. Slalom skiers wear face, arm and shin guards to protect them as they intentionally bash the gates out of the way. In the super-G all of that protection is discarded in favor of aerodynamics at high speed. Racers learn to get as small as possible to cause less drag, and regularly practice in wind tunnels to refine their sleekness. Moreover, unlike slalom skiing where ski edges are frequently carving through the snow, in the super-G, the ability to keep the skis as flat as possible for as long as possible is greatly valued — since it’s faster. The skiers who can do that the best are known as gliders, the ultimate compliment for a speed skier.
The skis used in each discipline are also entirely different. Slalom skis are parabolic in shape and pliable to make turning easier and, for women, are generally about 155 centimeters long. The super-G skis will be straighter and stiffer, like a piece of cut lumber, and about 205 centimeters long.
So in addition to regaining her equilibrium — both on her skis and mentally after dual setbacks — Shiffrin will need to make multiple adjustments in the tools, technique and tactics in Friday’s super-G. But if Shiffrin, already one of the most accomplished ski racers in history, can clear her mind from her rough start at the Beijing Games, she does not have to look far into her past for inspiration.
At last year’s world championships, she conquered the vicissitudes of a full Alpine competition with these medal results: bronze in the super-G, silver in the giant slalom, bronze in the slalom and gold in the combined, an event that includes one run of downhill and one run of slalom.