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WAWC pain, spirit, strength. A Cortina follow-up.



26-28 January. 2xDH & SG

A subjective, fairly mushy commentary on Cortina’s recent carnage. I considered discussing the ethics of track lay-out/challenge vis-a-vis racer safety. But it’s a moot point. Ski racing isn’t safe and will never be. This late January meet had more attrition via crashes than most races do. Watching it was distressing, at times. (For comparison, 26 DNFs in Val d’Isere’s Super G (17 December) were functionally comical, IMO, as nearly all were ski-outs, some repeatedly on the same gates. Several Big People appeared flummoxed and mortal.)

    I started this piece a few times. Failing to produce a definitive opening, I’m saying the heck with it. Here you are.


    “Heartbreak” is a popular word—intoned by lovers, artists, patriots; idealists of all types when their worlds collapse. Athletes’ hearts break too—when their team loses a big, winnable game, or when individual triumph is missed by a slight error. Fans are heartbroken, too. For their team, their city or region, for themselves.

    (None of this compares to violent heartbreak—of gore, of horrid suffering. I imagine/hope anyone reading this is safe from politically-inflicted misery. I’m rather sure you are.)

    From WAWC’s perspective, the 26-28 January Cortina 2xDH & SG meet offered triumph, carnage in a relative sense, and heartbreak. As after any race weekend, feelings ranged from elation to anguish, depending upon who was asked. Everyone involved, however, would agree upon a very unfortunate element: more injuries than usual, including some top competitors’ seasons ending.

 

Mikaela Shiffrin off-balance, heading for netting. Cortina DH - 26 January


    For me, Valerie Grenier’s weekend was heartbreaking. The most unfortunate/poignant Sunday afternoon of any competitor. Along with Alice Merryweather, no one ran Speed after such a long interruption for such bad injuries. (If I’m mistaken please let me know.) So this look at Cortina’s arduous meet will use Valerie’s experience to offer a wider context.

    Freshly turned 27 on 30 October, Valerie was running three Disciplines (no Slalom) for the first season since February 2019 leg injury/recovery sidelined her until abbreviated 2021 (10 WAWC starts) and 2022 (7 starts). 2023 EOS GS 7th was a solid return to her prime discipline: 10 GS starts—1st; 3d; 4xT10; 2xT15; 2xDNF.

    An ambitious competitor, Grenier ramped up 2024—steadily and wisely. Over the first three Speed weekends, she ran 4xSG and skipped the Downhills. 11th, 14th, and 2xDNF was a modest recovery…but she was fast again. Zauchensee’s 11th beat out some quick players—C. Suter, Weidle, Gisin, Mowinckel, Ledecka, Wiles, Wright.

    In Giant Slalom she was on: 6th place after 9 of 11 scheduled races. GS 1st; 4th through 8th; 11th. (No DNFs!) Held this position despite missing Kronplatz after Cortina. (Duh)  

 

Valerie Grenier - 1st place Kranjska Gora GS - 6 January 2024

 

    On Friday 26th January at Cortina, Grenier started 31st. From the research I’ve done, this was Valerie’s first competitive Downhill race at any level since 2019. And she ties for 3d! Who else has done that? No one else, I’ll bet. An exemplary performance. Saturday’s DH she overcooked a turn and missed a gate, with a -0.29 lead at the second split.

    Sunday’s SG was sunny, fine conditions. No disruptive wind as the day before. LG-B smoked it from bib 6 and that was that. Stephanie Venier put down an excellent run for 2nd, and Romane Miradoli—IMO WAWC’s Simone de Beauvoir—took a splendid 3d, +0.41 from Lara.

    Not as treacherous as Friday’s DH, the race developed a fraught edge between two gates on the track’s lower section, on a relatively level stretch right before the final pitch. (This section is called the Romerlo.) The gates there are control gates defining the track’s running boundary, as opposed to turning gates, which mark decisive changes of direction.) The racing line ran hard against the first blue gate, with several athletes brushing it with their left poles, or with their elbows. Contact is very audible. Kajsa Lie, running 15th, cleared it but hit the second (red) gate and went down hard. Sliding wildly in a dramatic plume, Lie destroyed the next gate and came to a rest down past the one after that. She then nonchalantly rose and glided down. Bib 17 Roberta Melesi fell just below where Kajsa did—not after hitting a gate but very close. Laura Gauche clipped the gate, perhaps with her elbow. You could hear it.

    Grenier’s run from 20th began very well. She was a half-second up at the 2nd split, lost it running wide on a steep left-footer, but was right back on swinging sharp turns, poised, looking relaxed and totally there. Coming onto the slightly more level but still fast traversing section, she dipped low from a red gate, a meter or so beneath the blue line, and hit the blue gate hard. I can’t tell if her left ski went between the gate poles, but the impact flipped her way up off the snow, onto her back, and a hundred meters or so down the pitch along the B net. It was awful. A wonderfully expressive/animated commentator, Steve Perino fearfully called the fall and fell silent. He was really bummed. On it for perhaps a top-5 finish and one of the weekend’s best stories, Valerie blew out her right ACL and MCL, and fractured her left humerus. (Humerus breaks are notoriously painful.)


Valerie Grenier off-balance after hitting gate. Cortina SG - 28 January


    GOD DAMN IT. This is unfair. (How, I’m not sure. Nothing untoward caused the crash.) No decent person wants any athlete to get injured, but sometimes it seems a bad wreck occurs to someone who especially doesn’t deserve it—either because of their kind personality or because they’ve already been through the injury/rehab ringer. Both are the case with Valerie Grenier; her superb skiing that weekend further amplifies an unjust accident. I’m not saying this to be kind/sympathetic, but strictly factual: she was leading each race at the second split; sharp, aggressive, one of the field’s very best.

    It was her error. Fairness had nothing to do with it. Ski racers crash and are injured, often badly. And unless the track has a dangerous imperfection unnoticed by forerunners, or if a binding pre-releases, or if a spectator throws a frozen game hen and hits a competitor, then a crash is the skier’s fault. This feels shitty to type, but that’s the game all racing sportspeople play.


Landscape with the Fall of Valerie Grenier.


    (Eleven competitors made the podium at Cortina. Each has recovered from an ACL injury during her racing career—all, I believe, from a full tear, some from two; a couple from broken legs as well.)

    Other bad things occurred. Joana Haehlen pulled up lame on Saturday’s DH after cranking a turn exclusively on her left knee. Per her IG, subsequent scans/examination revealed she’s been skiing with no right ACL for two years; she sustained a bone bruise in her right knee at Cortina. And she’s had no left ACL for six years. So…you can race World Cup level with no ACL. How does that work? Why does anyone get them repaired? Many things I don’t understand.

    Also on Saturday, Bella Wright skidded out landing Delta jump and banged the netting pretty hard. She got off with a cut chin.

    Friday’s DH claimed two heavy hitters quite early. Corinne Suter (bib 11) blew out her left ACL by awkwardly landing a short, fast jump which was an integral part of the run, before a sharp right-footer early on the track, right before the famous steep chute between rock fins. This is where Mikaela Shiffrin (bib 8) lost her balance after the jump and slid heavily into the netting. Her right knee ligaments were stretched, but not torn. Lucky. She’s still out, however, and hoping to return 9-10 March at Are for GS & SL. After Mikaela and Corinne were hurt, word got up the hill and no one else crashed there—though several barely made the turn, and a couple were off-line and skied out entering the chute.


Corinne Suter landing early jump and tearing left ACL. Cortina DH - 26 January


    Friday’s principal trap was a long fast right-footer off the Delta jump, about a third of the way down. I imagine word got uphill early after Priska Nufer (bib 4) landed Delta back on her skis and hit the deck hard. (Speed off Delta jump around 115km/70mph. Major load on knees/legs to make the turn.) She was “okay”—looked like wind knocked out but skied down. Then Federica Brignone (bib 10), Michelle Gisin (20), and Emma Aicher (23) skidded out of their turns and hit the netting. Each skied off, though Gisin and Aicher were banged up enough to miss the rest of the weekend. Fede's damage was mostly to her ego: "Careless," she said in the finish area, and raced DH next day.


Priska Nufer shortly after hitting Delta turn netting. Cortina DH - 26 January


   During this stretch, Steve Perino said he thought the race would, and ought to be, ended because so many skiers were crashing, including the world’s best. At this point I wrote in my race notes, “Perino wondering if race will be stopped. Uh, why? Yes, there’s a tricky section, potentially dangerous. But half the folks have railed it. Also, word’s out to beware. A men’s race wouldn’t be stopped. If they stop this race, WAWC takes a huge hit. Girls can’t handle it, etc.” (My full “real-time” race notes are posted as the previous Feature.)


Michelle Gisin hits Delta turn netting. Cortina DH - 26 January


    Point is, Lara Gut-Behrami (bib 9) gave an artistic performance, surely for victory. Then Stephanie Venier (18) uncorked perhaps her career’s best run for the win. Sofia Goggia (15), Christina Ager (24), and Valerie Grenier (31) tied for third! A spectacular event. As the race unfolded, Perino freely admitted/agreed that continuing was the correct call. Halting high attrition with injuries is the caring, humane reaction. World Cup ski racing is a profession, though. Every competitor must have their shot at the track.

    Finishing off Delta’s toll: Nadine Fest (bib 32) fell landing the jump, slid into fence, skied off.

    Several other later racers fell in other spots—including two right below the fast turn into the chute. Sabrina Maier (35) lost her balance and wailed into the netting, but was fine. A couple of missed gates rounded out the day’s 12 DNFs.


Stephanie Jenal at speed; recovered but DNF. Cortina DH - 26 January


    Valerie’s misfortune shows once again how small mistakes/miscalculations during a race may change almost everything about a ski racer’s career/life. To cast a wider net—injury changes any athlete’s immediate routine and plans. Everyone faces this. A bad auto accident changes its participants’/victims’ lives, sometimes permanently. Anyone can get sick—from a sniffle to cancer—and must deal with the affliction’s severity. It’s part of Life.

    For me, following WAWC has shown me a category of humans who expect to be hurt. People for whom debilitating injury, or at least its high probability, is an essential characteristic of their job. None but the most arrogant or naïve ski racer truly believes “It can’t happen to me.” Perhaps I’m wrong; invulnerability may be de rigueur to consistently perform well. Moving fast gives racers great pleasure, which is worth the risk, especially if you make a good living doing it. Being hard-wired for such beginning when you’re four years old helps, too.

    I’m probably way out on a limb, but I sense a (mostly vague) feeling of relief when a repairable injury occurs. There’s a short documentary/info video about Lara Gut, in which she says her 2017 ACL tear gave her a break from racing’s physical and especially mental pressures, which she sorely needed. Mikaela Shiffrin’s tweaked knee at Cortina probably cost her the 2024 Overall Women’s World Cup. I’m sure she would have rather the crash didn’t happen. But per her IG the knee’s progressing, and she’s enjoying playing the piano in her rented house. Of course she can play piano after the season. But the tunes she’s learning now, the unplanned/unanticipated pleasure she’s getting now, wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. Perhaps the trade-off is, at least a bit, worth it.

    For most WAWC and other (professional) athletes, I’ll bet heavily that any “relief” injury provides is totally not worth it. Gut and Shiffrin are superstars, who can afford a rare setback psychologically and financially. Lyndsay Vonn was in a similar position for her mid- and late-career tears and breaks, but I imagine any relief she felt was short-lived. (Not sure what I mean by this, not knowing her or any of these people at all—I just sense Vonn’s competitiveness and purpose is driven by deeper/more acutely felt, perhaps more inwardly painful, ambition. Also, the woman was injured a lot. No one benefits from that.)

    Valerie Grenier, AFAICT, is an archetypal athlete of exceptional talent well-developed and firmly placed within her professional milieu. As ski racing is dangerous, Grenier’s career arc is heavily guided by luck: not falling and being hurt. Yes, falling usually results from making a mistake. But a severe injury is very often caused by a body being oriented a few inches one way or the other during the accident. We’ve seen racers hit the netting at high speeds in awkward shapes, then stand up (perhaps yell at the universe), and ski down. Several did at Cortina—Gisin, Nufer, Aicher. Kajsa Lie traveled Cortina SG’s final pitch on her back/side/tummy however at a competitive velocity, after smashing a couple of gates. She arose and glided off. Luck. Always, to a degree.


Kajsa Lie flattens gate. Cortina SG - 28 January


Kajsa Lie slides down the track, unhurt. Cortina SG - 28 January


    Along with Marie-Michele Gagnon, Grenier has for years been Canada’s best all-around WAWC racer, AFAICT. (See her profile in Canada’s 2024 Pre-Season note Feature.) 114 WAWC starts; 109 Nor-Am starts. 2016 Nor-Am Cup Overall 2nd – DH 2nd; SG 4th; GS 4th; SL 11th. This is a major young talent; more important, an accomplished talent. This girl raced superbly in competition. Then a badly-broken leg early 2019 as her World Cup starts were ramping up. Missed 2020 season. Eased back into the game via GS—2023 EOS 7th sitting 6th this year. And most impressive to me, on it 3-Discipline. Pre-season I snarkily asked if Canada had a Downhiller. They did.

    So here’s a young person committed to/immersed within a sophisticated, extremely demanding world-class sport, whose proven talent is, IMO, unquestioned/perennial EOS GS top-7 minimum, and in the running for similar Speed results with work/luck. She’s having a strong GS season, with a win and all T8 but one. (Has anyone run a Discipline “flush”— 1st – 9th  or whatever in a season? Valerie’s 1st; 4th through 8th; 11th this year.)

    Then in perhaps the season’s most prestigious meet—2xDH and SG on as famous an Alpine piste in existence, and next Olympics’ venue to boot—Valerie scores a 3d in her first DH on any level in four years, leads half-way in the second DH, and then breaks her shoulder and blows out her knee on the final day, quite close to the finish line.

    At 27, she has time to mend/rehab and compete next season, I think. Summer training won’t be full-bore; hesitance/fear caused by the accident is speculative. Again, my question is how does Valerie Grenier deal with this? I guess she has no choice but to? She wasn’t just close to being in the WAWC mix, she was there, improving each race. Many WC racers confront this circumstance. How does someone accept such a set-back? I’ll leave it as a rhetorical question.


Valerie Grenier. Cortina - 26 January


    Why do I care about WAWC? The sport bears no meaning or import within my life, except for admiring its participants’ engaging personalities and their insane profession’s joy and travails, which I guess is enough. But should this web site be a focal activity for a sixty-five-year-old man who has no formal connection to the sport? Young women intrigue old men, that’s part of it. A distant vicarious link to the activity permits a neutered male gaze, I guess. An unharmful gaze? Theoretically not, but I’m far removed from grad school’s feminist theory seminars and think that sitting in my cluttered office, or whatever this room is, poses no objective threat to anyone. Except for myself, as I surely could be using my time more wisely.


Post-Cortina commentary/musing from shortly after the races. Mostly re LG-B turning up the heat:

   Cortina’s crashes and Sofia’s later GS training misfortune shifted the 2024 WAWC Overall and Discipline outcome. Ordained it even, I’d say. Unless Mikaela comes back top-form in Are, Lara will take her second Overall globe. IMO, it will be richly deserved. Some may quail that Shiffrin’s injury opened the door—of course it did, just as Lara’s February 2017 ACL tear set the table for Tina Weirather to take the 2017 SG title—Lara had won 3 of the 4 SGs run—and loosened up DH and GS as well. Gut-Behrami is WAWC’s Professional, IMO. She’ll win the Overall and probably two Disciplines because she hasn’t made a mistake and gotten hurt.

    If Lara Gut-Behrami finishes her remaining starts GS,SG,DH Top-6, with a couple more wins and a couple more podiums, she’ll take the Overall women’s World Cup—and quite possibly sweep GS, SG, and DH titles. LG-B’s in superb form; she knows this is her chance for an epic season. Indeed, she’d have the best WAWC campaign since Shiffrin’s 2019 rampage—Overall globe 2204 points, 849 from 2nd place; Discipline titles SL (8 wins), GS (4 wins), and SG (3 wins).

    I say this confidently, because I think Mikaela’s Speed season is over. She’ll return second weekend in March for Are’s SL & GS, then finish off with Saalbach’s 2xSL & 2xGS. Stressing her knee before then in Disciplines she cannot reasonably contest—DH 20th place; SG 22nd—is non-sensical. She leads Slalom by 188 points over Lena Duerr’s 442; Michelle Gisin is next, 298 back. (Unlucky Petra’s frozen at 505, and may still podium for the season.) Mikaela has the SL title in hand—Lena would need 2x3d (120 pts) and a 2nd (80 pts) to win it if Shiffrin doesn’t race another meter this season. Ain’t gonna happen. Re Giant Slalom, Mikaela’s 256 pts behind Lara. At 135 points off LG-B, Federica Brignone has a vague shot at the title, but she won’t hit it.

    Lara’s dialed in. IMO, she’s WAWC’s foremost Professional, everyone included. Her technical expertise and cool demeanor make her the sport’s firm second-best 3- or 4-Discipline competitor. Fede’s a wonderfully talented, ethereal on-edge rival; Michelle Gisin back in total form would challenge Mikaela well to 2028. But right now LG-B’s creating late career magic.

    I really hope she sticks it for two more seasons, through the Cortina Olympics. If she wins the Overall this year, I’ll give it 50-50 for competing in 2026. Lara has her Olympic SG gold, and two bronzes (DH and GS). The Olympics are a hassle. Three things to consider, however: Cortina is Europe’s Olympic venue par excellence; her sponsors may offer huge incentive/bonus for competing; she’s done very well on the track.

    So, I imagine LG-B guns for a superlative 2025 season/World Championship meet and take it from there. She wants fifty career victories and will end this season with 47 if she wins 3 of her remaining 9 starts. (As of 29 February.) Vreni Schneider’s 55 is 4th career best and top Swiss. (Pirmin Zurbriggen’s 40 tops Swiss men.) If Lara exceeds Schneider next season, which she would with a superb campaign, she may hang it up.

    If Gut-Behrami is a dynamo and goes until she’s 36 (through 2027), then she could pass Moser-Proll (62) for 3d career. But she’d need to sustain her current excellence, and hold off basically two mature younger WAWC generations, for three more seasons.

    A very ambitious goal. If Lara achieves it, hers will be the stratospheric career record mortals aspire to beat, as Vonn escaped earth’s atmosphere, and Shiffrin inhabits her own quasar way out there.



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