Cancellations, coronavirus and calling it a day – This was a winter sports season like no other
Pete Sharland looks back on what will be remembered as one of the most tumultuous winter sports season in recent history, one that had a bit of everything, for better and for worse…
It ended as it began, a shock to the system, as one of the greatest to ever do his sport called it a day before anyone expected.
- Fourcade wins final race but Crystal Globe goes to Boe
- Mikaela Shiffrin has something to say
- Like his talent, Hirscher's retirement transcends the sport he dominated
On Saturday in Finland, in front of practically nobody, it was Martin Fourcade who bid the Biathlon world farewell at the age of , saying goodbye off the back of his 83rd World Cup win.
Six months earlier, in a small room in Austria, it was Marcel Hirscher, a year younger than Fourcade, who hung up his skis after an unprecedented period of dominance.
For both athletes it was hard to escape the feeling that both had retired too soon, two individuals who will undoubtedly go down as two of the best ever and both still in, or at least very close, to their prime.
Yet by the same degree it was impossible to begrudge them their decision, wouldn’t all of us dream of stepping away from a sport that, in Hirscher’s case at least, could cause them serious harm, with more than enough fame and fortune to live comfortably for the rest of the days with their family?
Inbetween these two legends announcing their retirement it was a remarkable season and it seems best to start right at the beginning, when the women’s Alpine Skiing tour got us going with a bang.
In the first race of the year in Solden in October 17-year-old Alice Robinson announced her arrival on the professional circuit when she stunned defending champion Mikaela Shiffrin to take the Giant Slalom. Injury has hampered the season of the former Junior World Champion from New Zealand but Robinson proved it was no flash in the pan with a clinical performance in Slovenia a month ago.
All signs pointed to the most competitive men’s calendar for years in the absence of Hirscher but due to reasons we’ll touch on later it was the women’s that really shone as Federica Brignone became the first Italian lady ever to win the overall World Cup.
There was a new winner of the men’s tour as well with Aleksander Aamodt Kilde lifting his first title despite winning just one race all season. Kilde’s remarkable efficiency saw him edge out the two pre-season favourites, Alexis Pinturault and Henrik Kristoffersen.
HEARTBREAK AND RESILIENCE
Sadly perhaps now seems as good a time as ever to address the real tragedy of the Alpine season, the sudden passing of Jeff Shiffrin, father of Mikaela, at the age of 65. It came as a hammerblow to the entire tour, such was the senior Shiffrin’s popularity amongst everyone he came into contact with.
Not for the first time this season the younger Shiffrin had to dig deep into her deep pools of resilience, finally preparing herself to return for the final weekend of the season before coronavirus curtailed the event.
However if her response was anything like what she showed in Lienz just before the New Year Brignone might have had her work cut out for her in the battle for the Overall Crystal Globe.
Shiffrin came into Lienz after a catastrophic run in the Giant Slalom at Courchevel, where she finished 17th. After a strong opening run Shiffrin simply blew the rest of the competition to pieces with a devastating second run. She finished as the best skier in that second run despite having to go out last and having earlier in the day shown up to the track late having missed her alarm call.
Remarkably that wasn’t even Shiffrin’s most dominant victory of the season, that came earlier in the month at Killington when she beat the pack by an astonishing 2.29 seconds. That win came in just her second race following the decision for her mother Eileen to step away from her entourage following the death of her mother, Shiffrin’s grandmother.
This was Brignone’s year but there is no doubting the extraordinary mental fortitude of Shiffrin, and nor is there any doubt that the young American is the best skier in the world, and remains on course to go down as the greatest ever.
From a British perspective the undoubted star of the season was snowboarder Katie Ormerod who became the first Brit to ever win a World Cup Snowboard title. The 22-year-old was competing in her first full season back after multiple surgeries following her injuries before the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
There was more encouragement towards the end of the season as Thomas Gerken-Schofield became the first Brit to medal at a moguls World Cup event when he took silver in Russia a couple of weekends ago.
There is still plenty more work to be done ahead of Beijing 2022 but it’s undeniable the forward progress that the British snow stars are making under the new leadership of Vicky Gosling and Dan Hunt.
TALKIN’ BOUT MY GENERATION
There might be plenty of reasons that one would lose heart over the future of winter sports; plenty of big names have decided to end their careers, question marks over the clean nature of so many sports linger and the spectre of global warming continues to loom.
Yet on the snow the future could not be brighter. In every sport you can see rising stars or those who are entering the theoretical primes of their careers.
The men’s Biathlon is a prime example of that. Fourcade is gone but he could no longer claim to be the best biathlete in the world, that mantle now lies with Johannes Thingnes Boe, already the man with the third-most wins in World Cup history.
Even within the French set-up Fourcade acknowledged Emilien Jacquelin, the 24-year-old winner of the Pursuit title this season, as one of the new stars of the sport.
What that, and the new names that are cropping up across the sport, mean is that there are still more than enough young people are still encouraged to take up snow-based sports, and the platforms are still in place to help them develop.