United States alpine skiing fans, what few there are, have been spoiled in the past decade and a half, witnessing arguably the best skiers in U.S. history take the slopes.
In a time where Americans are expected to take home medals in every event, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, the United States struggled to gain much traction in the sport.
The storied careers of Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn, along with the more than serviceable accomplishments of Ted Ligety and Andrew Weibrecht have made fans have high expectations, blurring the memory of when Tommy Moe and Picabo Street were the sport’s only American “stars” in the 90s.
But it seems that America’s run in the top tier of the world’s alpine skiing powers is coming to an end. The bright future we saw in the early 2000s has come and gone, only leaving questions of, what’s next?
Now that’s not to say that America hasn’t had their run with the top. In Salt Lake City in 2002, the world saw a flashy 24-year old Bode Miller take home two silver medals, while also seeing uninspiring debuts from Lindsey Vonn (then Lindsey Kildow) and Julia Mancuso. Miller’s performance alone doubled the ski team’s medal take from the prior Olympics in Nagano.
Torino 2006 saw Miller implode, Kildow turn to Vonn and begin her injury struggles, but Mancuso and Ted Ligety emerged to each take a medal.
Vancouver then provided the breakout everyone only dreamt of. In the prime of their careers, Miller, Vonn, and Mancuso put it all together, while also getting an unpredicted medal from Andrew Weibrecht, giving an American Olympic record of eight total medals.
Sochi in 2014 saw largely the same cast return, for what felt like one last party, with Miller, Ligety, Weibrecht and Mancuso all medaling again. However, for the first time since Ligety in Torino eight years prior, a brand new medalist emerged with a gold, when wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin took home the slalom title.
So after a relatively long run of solid performances, why complain or ask questions? Because besides Shiffrin (we’ll get to her in a minute) the program doesn’t have a future leg to stand on.
Even ignoring the what-ifs of what could’ve been in the careers of Miller (potential off-hill issues) and Ligety and Vonn (injuries), there was a great run of success over the past few Olympiads. But again, what’s next?
Heading into the Pyeongchang Olympic year, American skiing looks like a contender on their last legs before a rebuild. Shiffrin is currently the World Cup overall leader, and at the age of 21, is one of the sport’s bona fide rising and current superstars. While her scope of dominance is more limited to skill races such as the slalom and giant slalom races, she can still be penciled in for two medals barring injuries. Vonnis returning from another injury, but could easily compete for a medal in what she has said will be her final Olympics. Mancuso is also looking to make one last go at the world’s biggest stage.
On the men’s side, things look much worse. Miller, who retired after Sochi, is considering a comeback at age 39. While the story would be incredible in its own right, the fact that someone of that age could be returning is a testament to how weak the American team is right now. Ligety is expected to return from an injury and still be world class. Andrew Weibrecht could come back for a surprise. However, the only other contender is 28-year old Travis Ganong, who has one World Cup win under his belt, as well as a fifth place finish in Sochi. He very well could factor into medals in Korea.
So if the teams shape up how it appears they’ll shape up, 2018 will be a swan song of sorts, an exhibition of the who’s who of America’s yesteryear in alpine skiing. Shiffrin and Ganong could still be the fresh faces, but besides them it’s the old guard again. Even if the games somehow turn out well, there’s no reinforcements waiting in the wings. Shiffrin can only carry the torch so much on her own, and Ganong’s racing isn’t strong enough to help carry the weight dropped by Miller and others.
After 2018, a huge question mark will loom over American skiing. It’s Shiffrin, and nobody else. While it may be easy to ignore the problem after a string of unprecedented success, it’s time to accept that America’s time in the sun could very well be over in alpine skiing. The Pyeongchang Olympics will be the final goodbye for a group that has changed the sport in the States. Soak it in while you can, it’s going to be dark soon.