Sports

Alex Speier

Can Mikaela Shiffrin replace Lindsey Vonn at the top of the hill?

KRANJSKA GORA, SLOVENIA - JANUARY 06: Mikaela Shiffrin of USA competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Giant Slalom on January 6, 2018 in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Mikaela Shiffrin won Saturday’s giant slalom at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.

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First in a series of features leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Lindsey Vonn will likely occupy one of the brightest spotlights at next month’s Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as she takes part in the Games for what could be the last time. The 33-year-old will enjoy the status afforded to the most decorated women’s skier of all time, her 78 World Cup wins far surpassing the prior record of 62.

Yet as much as the Olympics will offer an opportunity to place Vonn’s career dominance in context, the competition may highlight a rapidly growing threat to her position. Vonn’s US teammate, Mikaela Shiffrin, continues to amass wins at a pace that far exceeds what Vonn had accomplished at a comparable stage.

On Saturday, the 22-year-old Shiffrin claimed her 39th career World Cup victory, bringing her to half of Vonn’s total. In her eighth World Cup season, it has taken Shiffrin just 120 races to get to 39 victories.

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By comparison, Vonn required 256 races to get to that total in her 11th World Cup season. Through 120 races, Vonn had just four wins. At Shiffrin’s pace, she would match Vonn’s 78 wins by her 240th race — a point at which Vonn had fewer victories (33) than Shiffrin already possesses.

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Meanwhile, there are signs that Shiffrin’s best days are to come. She’s won eight of the 15 World Cup events she’s entered this season, a 53 percent winning rate that marks the seventh straight in which her percentage has gone up. She’s won a startling 33 percent of her career events — a remarkable figure given that Vonn has become the sport’s standard for excellence by winning roughly one out of every five races she’s entered.

If Shiffrin can sustain what she’s done in the early stages of her career — or even, to the horror of her competitors, improve upon it as Vonn did in her late 20s — she could not merely catch Vonn but zoom past her. Already, the skiing world has been trying to make sense of what Shiffrin has done — and what might remain on the horizon.

“She’s been pretty amazing to watch to see how quickly she started winning races and then how quickly she started dominating, and hasn’t let up at all since,” US men’s team member Ted Ligety noted in September. “Her rise has been pretty amazing.”

“I think she’s maybe the best ski racer I’ve ever seen, male or female,” two-time World Cup champion Bode Miller told reporters.

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Already, Vonn and Shiffrin have been pulled into the conversation about their relative standing in the women’s skiing pantheon. In late November, Outside magazine featured a cover story on Shiffrin headlined, “Mikaela Shiffrin is the Greatest Skier of All Time. (Discuss.)”

Shiffrin tweeted her appreciation for the feature while noting “that there are quite a few names on the list before mine for ‘best of all time’!”

Vonn, meanwhile, posted a tweet of understated rebuttal that featured a screenshot of some of her numerous World Cup records.

Lindsey Vonn won the super giant slalom in December at Val-d'Isere, France.
Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Lindsey Vonn won the super giant slalom in December at Val-d'Isere, France.

It’s premature to say that Shiffrin will match or surpass Vonn’s achievements. After all, flying down a mountain comes with an inherent vulnerability to career-altering injuries.

A large part of Vonn’s history-making résumé was forged on the strength of her ability to take part in an average of 33 races between her age-23 through age-27 seasons. Moreover, Vonn’s 46 wins during that five-year run came in part because she proved capable of broadening the events in which she was successful, moving beyond dominance in speed events to become one of just six women to win races in all five World Cup events (downhill, super-G, slalom, giant slalom, super-combined).

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Although Shiffrin has started to participate in an increasing number of downhill competitions, she remains chiefly focused on the slalom and giant slalom, resulting in a more limited competition schedule than Vonn at the same age.

That said, Shiffrin claimed a downhill win in Lake Louise (Canada) in December in just her fourth World Cup race in the event. That victory suggested that Shiffrin could also accelerate in her pursuit of Vonn’s wins record.

Mikaela Shiffrin's World Cup stats Does not include Olympics results
Year Races Career Races Wins Season Win % Career Wins Career Win %
2011 2 2 0 0% 0 0%
2012 14 16 0 0% 0 0%
2013 20 36 4 20% 4 11%
2014 16 52 5 31% 9 17%
2015 16 68 6 38% 15 22%
2016 12 80 5 42% 20 25%
2017 25 105 11 44% 31 30%
2018 15 120 8 53% 39 33%
SOURCE: FIS

“If I’m feeling crazy I can think, yeah, maybe if I keep going this way I could get 78 or something. I could get there,” she told the Associated Press last month. “But as soon as I think about that, my skiing starts getting really bad. It’s fun to dream about these things, but it’s not my first goal.”

Nonetheless, as much as the Olympics will serve as an opportunity to focus on the current place of US stars Vonn and Shiffrin in their sport, the subject of the all-time race beyond the individual races in PyeongChang will prove as unavoidable for that duo as it is irresistible to those following it.

Lindsey Vonn's World Cup stats Does not include Olympics results
Year Races Career Races Wins Season Win % Career Wins Career Win %
2001 5 5 0 0% 0 0%
2002 21 26 0 0% 0 0%
2003 5 31 0 0% 0 0%
2004 26 57 0 0% 0 0%
2005 28 85 1 4% 1 1%
2006 33 118 3 9% 4 3%
2007 21 139 3 14% 7 5%
2008 33 172 6 18% 13 8%
2009 34 206 9 26% 22 11%
2010 31 237 11 35% 33 14%
2011 32 269 8 25% 41 15%
2012 36 305 12 33% 53 17%
2013 16 321 6 38% 59 18%
2014 4 325 0 0% 59 18%
2015 18 343 8 44% 67 20%
2016 23 366 9 39% 76 21%
2017 10 376 1 10% 77 20%
2018 6 382 1 17% 78 20%
SOURCE: FIS

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.