American Alpine team wraps up with five medals, and likely transition in its future

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that Croatia's Janica Kostelic was the only skier to win three Alpine golds in a single Olympics.

When Ted Ligety began the second of his two runs in Saturday night’s slalom race, staring down at a nearly impossible course, he had accomplishments that can never be taken away: a pair of gold medals, including one at the Sochi Olympics, the only American man with two Alpine golds.

Ligety went for another medal in the slalom, a discipline in which he hadn’t placed in the top three for more than five years. And when he bobbled twice at the top of the course, losing speed, the U.S. Alpine team’s appearance here was effectively over. Ligety, 29, skied off course for the night, but not forever.

“I plan to continue going on,” he said. And for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, that’s good news, because to approach the performance from the past two Olympics, including five medals in Sochi, the Americans will have to not only maintain performance from some medal winners but develop others.

“When you look at some of the performers like Ted, it’s possible,” U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said Saturday. “We just got to see how things are going the next couple years health-wise, injury-wise, and I hope we have those veterans around in 2018, and some of the young kids to support those guys.”

The young kid of the moment, of course, is Mikaela Shiffrin. At 18, and with her gold medal in the women’s slalom earned Friday night, she appears to be the foundation upon which the future of the Alpine team can be built. But by the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, three of the other medal winners here will be of the age when many skiers retire.

Four-time medalist Julia Mancuso and Ligety will both be 33 — as will Lindsey Vonn, the two-time medalist and four-time World Cup overall champion who missed the Sochi Games because of a series of knee injuries. Bode Miller’s bronze in super-G here already made him the oldest Alpine medalist in history, and he’ll be 40 next time around.

“You never know about Bode,” Riml said, but he smiled, knowing the unlikelihood.

From the slopes to the sidelines to a karaoke bar, Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise shares his most memorable moments covering the Winter Olympics so far. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

Consider that World Cup mainstays and multiple Olympic medalists Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who is 29, and Tina Maze of Slovenia, just a year older, say they will retire before Pyeongchang, and it’s worth wondering whether this might have been the prime period of American Alpine skiing: a national record eight medals in Vancouver, with five more here, matching the 1984 Sarajevo Games for second most.

“My expectations have been met,” head men’s Coach Sasha Rearick said Saturday night.

So have Ligety’s, because he won the gold in the giant slalom — the event he has dominated for seven years, the event he was favored to win — and therefore could ski freely in the slalom. He was a solid sixth after the first run, just 0.11 seconds out of third.

But after Austria’s Marcel Hirscher took the lead, the course — set by the infamous Ante Kostelic of Croatia, known for his diabolical layouts — continued to take its toll. Two exceptional slalom skiers, Alexis Pinturault of France and Felix Neureuther of Germany, couldn’t handle it and skied out. Ligety was next.

“The snow’s just really bad, and Ante set a really difficult, typical Ante course set,” Ligety said, “which is borderline unsportsmanlike to set that kind of course on these kinds of hills.”

Yet after Ligety skied off, Mario Matt of Austria, the first-run leader, mastered it, and he took the gold medal with a two-run time of 1 minute 41.84 seconds, 0.28 seconds better than Hirscher. Matt thus became something of a model for what the United States might bring to South Korea — at 34, the oldest slalom medalist in history.

“Guys like Bode and guys like Mario definitely [bring] validation that you can continue on into the later years of performance,” Ligety said. “Actually there’s a lot more guys in sports in general that are making it longer and longer, so that’s definitely encouraging.”

Still, the most closely watched aspect of the U.S. team’s development over the next four years will be Shiffrin. On Saturday, with the glow of her medal still fresh, she rolled out this little gem: Maybe, in four years, she could equal the American output here all by herself.

“I don’t want to push myself too far too fast,” Shiffrin said. “Definitely don’t get greedy. But at the same time, I’m a dreamer. Right now, I’m dreaming of the next Olympics — winning five gold medals, which sounds really crazy.”

It is, of course, an outlandish thought, one certainly buoyed by youth. Only Croatia’s Janica Kostelic (Ante’s daughter), France’s Jean-Claude Killy and Austria’s Toni Sailer have won as many as three Alpine golds at a single Olympics. Plus, to this point on the World Cup circuit, Shiffrin has competed only in slalom and giant slalom. Riml said Shiffrin likely will train more super-G this spring and enter some of those events next World Cup season. Downhill, Alpine’s fastest discipline, is further off.

“We’ve got to be patient,” Riml said. “We know her potential. To throw her into speed too soon, too much, is not going to be helpful.”

Eventually, though, Riml envisions Shiffrin as a five-event racer.

“She has the talent,” Riml said. “She has the drive and the commitment, so that’s not a problem. We’ve just got to do it step by step.”

Which is how they will try to develop new medal winners. Travis Ganong, 25, doesn’t have a World Cup podium finish yet, but he was fifth in the downhill here. Jared Goldberg, 22, was 11th in the super combined. Jacqueline Wiles, 21, was impressive in downhill training here and is just beginning her World Cup career.

But the expectations have been established by others. And as if to emphasize that point, Shiffrin left Sochi talking not just about the medals she and her teammates won here — but those that may come in the future.

“It’s okay to be confident here,” Shiffrin said. “. . . I’m going for gold, because I think I can. And I don’t think it’s jinxing here, and I don’t think it’s arrogant. It’s just a fact. We come to the Olympics to win.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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