Alpine Skiing: Storylines Heading into World Cup Finals Week
The Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort in Sochi is back in use this week with the Paralympic Winter Games taking place. For the best of those who skied its hills last month, they will be spending the next few days in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for the World Cup Finals.
An entertaining two weeks of racing has followed the Olympics with three of the multiple discipline and overall standings having already been decided.
The rest have been competed for in typically thrilling fashion. There have been a number of runs that will not soon be forgotten.
So, before the season comes to a close, here are the main storylines of the post-Sochi weeks.
Svindal and Hirscher Battle It out for Men's Overall Title
Aksel Lund Svindal's Winter Olympics did not go to plan. Medal-less, he left Russia focused on finishing the World Cup season strong.
So far, so satisfactorily for the Norwegian.
At Kvitfjell on home snow, Svindal did enough to secure the men's downhill title for the second year in a row and the super-G for a third.
The absence of any win in 2014 will continue to gnaw at the 31-year-old. In Lenzerheide, he has the chance to correct this. Doing so is his best chance of taking top spot in the finely poised overall standings.
Currently four points ahead of Svindal prior to Wednesday's downhill is Marcel Hirscher.
The Austrian enjoyed a better Olympics than his rival, taking silver in the slalom, but had a comparatively rough return to World Cup action last weekend in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
Hirscher's fourth in the giant slalom ensures he remains just ahead of Ted Ligety (who won the same race) in that table.
A place further down in the following day's slalom, the advantage in that competition now belongs to Germany's Felix Neureuther after his dominant run.
The overall title has had Hirscher's name attached to it the previous two years, as did the slalom title in 2013. Winning them again while improving on last year's super-G second would mark 2014 as a season to rival any in his career.
Flying Fenninger Pushes for Finals Weekend Glory
Anna Fenninger was one of the standout performers at the Winter Olympics. She followed up gold in the super-G with silver in the giant slalom.
The Austrian has picked up where she left off in Russia with an excellent two weeks back on the World Cup circuit.
Downhill success on a weather-hit weekend at Swiss resort Crans Montana was denied by a surprise victor (more on whom later). But Fenninger was standing on top of the podum in Are, Sweden a week later—twice.
The 24-year-old's successive giant slalom firsts added to her solitary World Cup win this season—also in giant slalom in her native Austria in December—and crucially have given her a chance of momentous finals week.
Fenninger is second on the overall, downhill and giant slalom leaderboards and is effectively second in the super-G behind Switzerland's Lara Gut with Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein out for the season.
Gut will not give up her 71 point advantage easily, though. Nor will the women currently ahead of Fenninger elsewhere.
Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch currently leads in the overall and downhill standings. The Olympic super-combined champion has had a patchy return to World Cup action—she has not finished in the top five in any of her four events since Sochi.
In giant slalom, Jessica Lindell-Vikarby's third in the second of the two Are events could prove crucial as she looks to hold on to her top spot.
Beyond her individual ambitions, success for Fenninger could be huge for Austria too. As the Associated Press' Graham Dunbar noted on Tuesday via Yahoo, "Not since 2002 have the Austrians held both the men's and women's overall titles, but Hirscher and Fenninger can achieve just that at the World Cup Finals this week."
After the Alpine skiing-mad country topped the sport's table at the Games, 2014 could be about to get even sweeter for Austria.
Shiffrin Wins Second Slalom Title in a Row
Mikaela Shiffrin's star will not be dimming anytime soon.
The American, who turns 19 this week, continued to make light of her relatively tender years with another couple of confident, almost hypnotically quick slalom runs in Are this past weekend.
Her previously nearest-placed rival Marlies Schild failed to finish, ensuring Shiffrin's win placed the slalom crown upon her head for the second year in a row.
Off the back of her Olympic success—and not forgetting last year's World Championships gold—the technical specialist is just ahead of Ligety as the US Ski team's in-form racer right now.
Shiffrin's attempts to win a fifth slalom race this season (and possibly reach another podium in giant slalom, the event having gone on the back-burner in 2014) can be conducted without pressure.
Yet, judging by the zeal with which the teenager has taken to top-level competition, she will be as eager as anybody for the next opportunity to ski with something grander on the line.
Fischbacher and Raich Surprise in Switzerland and Slovenia
By the time Andrea Fischbacher set off in the Crans Montana downhill, 28 of her fellow competitors had already made their way down the mountain.
Her fellow Austrian Fenninger looked set to notch her first win of the year in the discipline. Tina Maze and Elizabeth Goergl were probably looking at second and third, respectively.
Fischbacher's subsequent win at a time of 1:34.00 was all the sweeter knowing the rough few months she had endured.
The 2010 Olympic super-G champion had been left off the Austrian team for this year's Games. She had not been near a podium all year.
Fischbacher's delight was shared by her teammates—Fenninger included—who swiftly ran over to celebrate her season-salvaging win. She told the Associated Press via ESPN:
It's just a great feeling. It's been a hard time these past few years. I had some problems with my back and knee ... I was always skiing but my head wasn't free, I was thinking too much. Today it was just "go down and do what you can."
A week later in Kranjska Gora, Fischbacher's compatriot Benjamin Raich did not quite match her win in the giant slalom, but the 36-year-old's second place was one of his best performances for quite some time.
Though some way removed from the highs of Olympic success in 2006 and World Championships golds prior to and after that, it was a reminder of Raich's talents, not to mention the possibility that the unexpected can still surprise and delight us from time to time.
Jansrud Carries His Olympic Form into Home Success
Kjetil Jansrud might not be a major player in any of the World Cup leaderboards heading into the finals week, but like Fenninger and Shiffrin, he has stood out in maintaining his great Olympic form.
The super-G winner in Sochi won the same event as the circuit hit Kvitfjell in his native Norway. That followed an exciting downhill two days earlier in which he had shared honours with Austria's Georg Streitberger.
In between Jansrud's highs, Erik Guay of Canada bounced back from a disappointing Games to win his second downhill of the season.
Henrik Kristoffersen has also been flying the flag for Norway of late in the technical events.
His third-place finishes in Kranjska Gora in giant slalom and slalom have further underlined the 19-year-old as one of his sport's most exciting young skiers. The teenager had previously won the Schladming night race and scored a bronze in slalom in Sochi.