US skiers step out of Shiffrin’s shadow with strong results

Sports

United States’ Breezy Johnson holds the trophy after finishing third in a alpine ski, women’s World Cup downhill, in Val d’Isere, France, Saturday, Dec.19, 2020. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

For the first time since Lindsey Vonn’s retirement, the U.S. women’s ski team is no longer solely dependent on Mikaela Shiffrin for World Cup success.

Shiffrin was responsible for all 34 American podium results on the women’s circuit in the past two seasons, but three months into the current campaign, two team members have scooped top-three results as well.

Paula Moltzan finished runner-up in a parallel event in Austria in November, and Breezy Johnson added back-to-back third-place finishes in two downhills in France this month.

The season has also brought a string of career-best results for Nina O’Brien, Keely Cashman and AJ Hurt.

“I am really excited about and proud of our team,” Shiffrin said after placing third in the year-end night slalom in Semmering, Austria, on Tuesday.

“Everything is building. It’s been a really long time since we had this much depth within our entire ski team. It’s really cool to see that.”

With a women’s record of 82 World Cup victories behind her, Vonn retired in February 2019 after winning downhill bronze at the world championships, but her last World Cup podium came at the finals of the previous season, in March 2018.

That same season Shiffrin won her second overall title while Alice McKennis Duran and Jacqueline Wiles also scored podium results.

Since then, it has been all about Shiffrin.

She had 21 podiums, including a record-breaking 17 wins, in the 2018/19 season, and 13 podiums the following campaign, which was cut short following the death of her father, Jeff Shiffrin, in early February and the outbreak of the coronavirus.

This season Moltzan became the first team member to step forward, finishing a career-best 10th in the season-opening giant slalom in October before earning her first podium six weeks later.

“I am kind of overwhelmed but I am really excited. I am really lucky to have a great team to share it with,” said Moltzan, who started racing on the same Buck Hill in Minneapolis where Vonn had her skiing roots.

In the final race weekend before the Christmas break, Johnson was the next team member to appear in the spotlight, getting her first two career podiums on two consecutive days.

The Jackson, Wyoming native improved one place from her previous best, when she finished fourth in a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February 2018 that was won by Vonn.

“I still will always say that I am really bummed that I never shared (a podium) with Lindsey Vonn. I was close one time,” said Johnson, who has recovered from severe injuries to both knees since that race in Germany.

“After the injuries, I have so much energy, I have so much fun.

“When we train, I am like: ‘How many runs can we take, can we take six, can we take seven?’ I have so much love for the sport and realizing that it could be taken away at any moment in a very real way, I don’t take anything for granted.”

Other team members have stepped forward as well: O’Brien got a career best in GS in October and added her first top-10 result by finishing ninth in Tuesday’s slalom; Cashman collected her first World Cup points by coming 17th and 16th in two downhills in France before placing 10th in a super-G the next day; and Hurt scored her first points in the parallel event where Moltzan finished second before finishing 18th in a GS in France.

“These are athletes that I have watched skiing for years,” Shiffrin said. “I grew up skiing with them. I raced with them for 15 or more years. I know that they can have success in the World Cup.”

Shiffrin has contributed three of the American team’s six podium results this season, including a win at a GS in Courchevel, France.

The double Olympic champion and three-time overall champion wasn’t hiding her excitement about seeing her teammates fulfilling their potential.

“There are all these different stories that lead them to this place where they are finally having success,” Shiffrin said. “I am just looking at it and I feel so freakishly excited about it.”

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