Mikaela Shiffrin pulls out of downhill, leaving only one chance to face Lindsey Vonn

'It’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined'
Mikaela Shiffrin during training Monday for the ladies' downhill Alpine skiing race.
Mikaela Shiffrin during training Monday for the ladies' downhill Alpine skiing race.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin are the two shining stars of the U.S. ski team, but in a quirk of the sport they have rarely competed against each other.

That was about to change in the next few days on the biggest ski-racing stage possible, the Pyeongchang Olympics, where Vonn and Shiffrin were expected to race head to head twice, in the downhill and the Alpine combined.

But late Monday, because of a weather-related scheduling change, Shiffrin pulled out of Wednesday’s downhill, leaving just a single event for this classic matchup that may not have too many more chances for the spotlight.

“As much as I wanted to compete in the Olympic downhill, with the schedule change it’s important for me to focus my energy on preparing for the combined,” Shiffrin said in a statement.

On Monday evening, organizers announced they were moving the Alpine combined up one day, to Thursday from Friday. The switch was made because of projected weather, including high winds, but it means the downhill and the Alpine combined now will take place on consecutive days.

Vonn and Shiffrin will now face each other only on Thursday, in the last individual ski-racing event of the 2018 Winter Games. The Alpine combined consists of one downhill run and one slalom run — each representing Vonn’s and Shiffrin’s respective specialties.

It will be more than a showdown between prominent teammates, though. It could be an unparalleled matchup with historic implications: the only time in the Olympics that Vonn and Shiffrin, two of skiing’s greatest racers, were pitted against each other in the same event.

Vonn, who has the most World Cup victories by a woman (81), is closing in on Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup wins. Vonn, 33, expects to retire after the 2018-19 season.

Shiffrin, 22, already has 41 World Cup victories, a stunning pace. But if she remains reasonably healthy, she could vault past both Vonn and Stenmark, and smash records for Olympic victories, too. Shiffrin already has two gold medals. Vonn, competing in her fourth Olympics, has only one.

But if ski-racing fans want to see them square off in a major race setting, this week may be their last, best chance to do so. Vonn and Shiffrin most likely will meet only a few more times next winter on the World Cup circuit. Since Shiffrin debuted on the World Cup in 2011, they have competed against each other in only a handful of races.

Nonetheless, especially in the last couple of years, they have had a tacit rivalry even as they have existed in separate orbits.

Vonn has been battered by injuries in recent years, and in an effort to stay healthy for the Pyeongchang Games she has raced almost exclusively in her best events, like the speedy downhill.

Shiffrin has instead been racking up victories in the safer, more technical, Alpine events, like slalom and giant slalom, which are much different from the risky events Vonn prefers. It’s a schedule that has kept Vonn and Shiffrin, who live about a dozen miles apart outside Vail, Colorado, on different paths.

The two skiers, however, share some sponsors and sometimes even make appearances together, occasions when they are amiable and deferential. There are also brief periods when the U.S. ski team has training sessions that bring Vonn and Shiffrin together.

But otherwise they have kept their distance, and Vonn has probably grown weary of hearing the ski community calling Shiffrin “the next Lindsey Vonn,” something that first happened in 2010, not long after Vonn became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill, at the Vancouver Olympics.

On Monday morning at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, Vonn and Shiffrin, who won the Olympic giant slalom last week, both took training runs in preparation for the women’s downhill.

Vonn, one of the most fearless and accomplished downhillers in history, flung herself down the course and would have posted the day’s fastest time had she not stood up, relaxed and raised her arms to shoulder level 75 yards from the finish line.

Vonn was not just showing some style. The favorite in a downhill sometimes purposely slows down in the final seconds of training to keep the competition guessing about just how fast a time might have been possible. Vonn finished third in the field Monday. She won the first training run Sunday.

Shiffrin, on the other hand, was still showing signs of her inexperience on a high-level downhill course. Her body language and the amount of forward pressure she was exerting on her skis made it clear that she was thinking her way through her run. She was graceful, efficient and smoothly glided across the icy track of snow, but she also was not entirely certain where to seek more speed and where to be wary. She finished a respectable 16th Monday, which was seven spots higher than she did in the first training run. The final training runs will be Tuesday, but now only Vonn will be there.

The apparent differences between Vonn and Shiffrin continued after they had left the snow Monday. Shortly after her run, Shiffrin did a brief interview with NBC but otherwise did not speak with reporters. She was on her way to slalom training Monday afternoon to get ready for the Alpine combined.

Vonn, who will enter Wednesday’s race as a co-favorite with Italy’s Sofia Goggia, watched the entire training session from a spot near the finish area, laughing and joking with her rivals. She later did more than 30 minutes of interviews.

“Just trying to enjoy every moment of this while I’m still here,” she said.

Asked if she realized that Wednesday would be her last Olympic downhill race, Vonn smiled and said: “I’m trying not to think about that. I can’t get too sentimental about it. But I am soaking everything in.”

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