I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: ski racing is an insanely exciting sport. And not (only) because of the crashes.
It’s the only speed event out there that demands a different approach from its athletes every. Single. Time. Whenever Michael Phelps jumps into a pool, he knows what to expect, and what he has to do. With ski racing, not so much. Not only is each course and terrain different—even within the same race, conditions can change wildly from one moment to the next. Flat light, making it hard to suss out bumps in the terrain, can turn to blinding sunshine, making it impossible to see. A hard, icy surface can get sticky and thick from falling snow. Wind can suddenly push you off your line (or maybe faster down the hill). All of this is being navigated at speeds of up to 80 mph (that’s 117 feet per second), sometimes more, and at steeps that can get up to 45 degrees.
So why don’t more non-European viewers get excited for the skiing portions of the Winter Olympics? Other than the sport’s obvious Alpine roots, I blame two things. First, camera angles. Having reported from a number of World Cup races, I can tell you, the hills and speeds are insane. Next to the start of the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel a couple of years ago, it was so steep that I almost had a yard sale… and not while on skis. While I was walking. But no matter how many drones and fancy fixes they try to come up with, there is something about the cameras that appears to flatten steeps and slow speed.
Second? It can be hard to get excited about the athletes. The nature of the sport means that when each racer pops up on your TV, you get only a couple of minutes of screen time with them until the next one. And if you’re not a fan, each one looks like an anonymous Spandex-clad figure, finishing within hundredths or tenths of seconds of the next.
I can’t necessarily fix that for you ahead of the competitions in Pyongchang. But here’s a (pretty comprehensive) attempt to try.
If, like many Americans, the only ski racers you’ve heard of in this year’s Olympics are Lindsey and Mikaela, consider this your ticket to acting like you know who might beat them out—or what’s up with the other events.
If you need a refresher to what each discipline is, check out our guide to ski racing (and ski crashing) from the 2014 Olympics. Too lazy to click? Remember that downhill (the fastest, nuttiest of the disciplines) and super-G (with only slightly less speed and more turns) are called the “speed events” of alpine ski racing. GS (short for giant slalom) is the most classic of the disciplines, while slalom requires the most precision, quickest feet and shortest turns. Usually, athletes will specialize in either speed or technical events—though you will see some names cropping up in one event after another.
I’ll preview the men here, and the women in a separate post.
The Olympic alpine races kick off with the men’s downhill on Feb. 11, followed by the combined on the 13th, super-G on the 15th, GS on the 18th, and slalom on the 22nd.
Here, expect to broaden your interests beyond the athletes racing for the star-spangled banner: since Bode Miller’s retirement, the U.S. team hasn’t found anyone with quite the panache and power to replace him in men’s speed. In technical events, meanwhile, hopes are riding on Ted Ligety, aka Ted Shred. (More on him later).
Part of that is down to serious injuries, the constant bane of ski racing. Take veteran Steve Nyman. This year was supposed to be his fourth Olympics. It had potential to be a good one for the 35-year-old: He landed on the World Cup podium four times in the 2016 season, including third in the test event for the Pyeongchang downhill. At Garmisch last year, though, he got too much air off the roller, landed on his tails and dropped like a stone, tearing three knee ligaments.
He’d made a comeback this season… until, in the worst kind of Groundhog Day, just a few days ago he tore his ACL. Guess where? Garmisch.
And despite high hopes for Travis Ganong, who grabbed first place in the same 2017 Garmisch race that was Nyman’s undoing (twice), the chill Californian had a subpar season that only got worse right after Christmas: He crashed out at Bormio, joining his girlfriend Michelle-Marie Gagnon in rehab.
As they recover, here’s who to watch for instead in each event. Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the athletes who are well-positioned to medal. The entire Olympic list is one dynamo after another—and one of the best things about ski racing is its potential for upsets. (Remember when Roland Leitinger won silver at the World Champs last year? Who is Roland Leitinger? Exactly.) But these are some of my favorites.
Beat Feuz (downhill, maybe super-G and combined): The Swiss 30-year-old is in his prime and enjoying a solid season that’s put him at No. 1 in the World Cup standings for downhill. His results have included three victories and two runner-up spots, including at the notoriously insane Hahnenkamm downhill.
That puts Feuz in a way better position than he was heading into the last couple of Olympics. In an all-too-common refrain for ski racers, particularly speed specialists, he had to miss the 2008 and 2009 seasons because of torn knee ligaments, recovered, won the 2012 World Cup downhill at Sochi held in preparation for the 2014 Olympics… and then found out that at those pre-Olympic races he’d reinjured his knee. Even though he participated in the Olympics, he could only swing double-digit placements in the downhill, super-G and combined.
But this may be Feuz’s Olympic year. When he’s healthy, he tends to do well in big events: He won the downhill at the St Moritz World Ski Championships last year and came in third at those in Vail/Beaver Creek in 2015. (Other than the Olympics, the World Ski Championships are the other big-ticket, high-pressure event on the alpine racing calendar). He also skis super-G and combined, but it’s when the Swiss dynamo is in the start gate of the downhill that is not the time to go heat up those nachos.
Aksel Lund Svindal (downhill or super-G, maybe combined): I’ll never forget seeing the Norwegian titan crash and get helicoptered off the Hahnenkamm downhill in 2016. It seemed like a career-ending injury for the then-33-year-old, who had come in number-one in the overall downhill standings in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. But like many of these guys (and women), Svindal is no stranger to (literally) molar-cracking injuries. After sitting out the rest of the 2016 season with a torn ACL, he came back last year to take three podiums in the first four speed events… only to realize something still wasn’t quite right with his knee. Another surgery, another season ended early.
He’s back—again—and ready to make up for lost time. This will be the 35-year-old’s fourth Olympic games; over the years, he’s won one gold (super-G, 2010), one silver (downhill, 2010), and one bronze (GS, 2014). If he races anything like he has on the World Cup tour this season, he’s good for at least one more medal—he landed a podium, including two victories, in each of the first five downhill races this year. And after struggling to take a super-G podium all season, he won the final one ahead of the Games at Kitzbühel.
Not bad for someone whose knee has been out of commission for the last two years.
Kjetil Jansrud (super-G or downhill, maybe combined): Svindal isn’t the only Norwegian powerhouse in the game this year. Jansrud hasn’t only had a great season, he’s also the only one of the athletes to be able to say he’s already won the downhill in Pyeongchang—the 2016 test run, that is. Obviously, a test event is way different than the real thing, but I wouldn’t fall off my seat if Jansrud was able to pull it off a second time. It would be his second Olympic medal in downhill; at Sochi, he took bronze. His combined is also strong: he just missed the podium in 2014, coming in fourth.
It’s the super-G, though, where you’ll really want to tune in when you hear his name come on. The reigning Olympic champion, he came in second in the super-G at the World Ski Championships last year. He also won the crystal globe for the event last season (meaning he finished with the best standings in the discipline). He’s just as strong this year: Out of four super-Gs, he’s either won or been runner-up in three, putting him in the lead for the crystal globe yet again. And he’s got some extra motivation to win Olympic super-G again. If he doesn’t, it’ll be the first time since 1998 that a Norwegian hasn’t pulled it off.
Matthias Mayer (downhill and super-G, maybe combined): He’s the reigning Olympic champion for downhill, but this year, the Austrian’s results have ranged everywhere from 34th to second place. He’s also in the mix for super-G, as he podiumed in two of this season’s four races.
Dominik Paris (downhill, maybe super-G and combined): The Italian came in second at the Pyeongchang downhill test event, and he’s had three downhill podiums this season—the most recent of which was the last downhill before the Olympics at Garmisch. That means he should be riding into the Olympics on a confidence high.
He hasn’t podiumed in super-G since the end of last season, but crazier things have happened. Don’t discount him in the combined, either.
Hannes Reichelt (super-G, maybe downhill): The veteran Austrian knows how to bring the speed. He came in first in super-G at the Ski Championships in 2015, and this season, he’s gotten onto the podium in two of the four super-G races. In downhill, he’s just missed it the last few races—including a fifth place, a fourth, and a third, his only podium in the event so far this season.
Marcel Hirscher (slalom and GS): There’s no other way of describing him: Hirscher is an absolute machine. He’s won the overall season title for six consecutive years—more in a row than any other athlete in history. Among alpine racing fans, that’s generally considered a bigger deal than the one-time result of a single race, even one as prestigious as the Olympics or World Championships.
Still, Hirscher’s shown he can pull off big events, too. He’s won six golds in the World Championships—more than any male skier in 50 years. And out of a searing series of seasons, 2018 has been one of his best. Out of 16 World Cup races this season, he’s won 10 and podiumed in all but three.
Hirscher’s record isn’t quite as stellar with the Olympics. He’s been at the Games twice before, and although he got silver in slalom at Sochi, his other results just barely missed the podium: two fourth-places and a fifth.
This is a guy, though, who has been ticking off his to-do list this year like it’s no big thing. (When he competed at Wengen this year, a slalom he hadn’t won before and reportedly really wanted to, you could practically hear him kick it up a gear. He won). Olympic gold in both slalom and GS are the next accomplishments for him to grab. And if Hirscher wants it, this is the year for him to get it.
Do not, under any circumstances, leave the room when he comes on.
Henrik Kristoffersen (slalom and GS): Norway’s Kristoffersen is also a machine, and he’d be a shoo-in for an Olympic victory, except for one thing: He has the bad luck to be competing in the age of Hirscher. And compared to Hirscher, everyone else is second place. Literally.
Kristoffersen is a highly consistent skier, and his results show it. This year, out of those same 16 races, he’s podiumed in all but four to Hirscher’s three. But Hirscher’s string of victories means that podium placement is different: Kristoffersen has a string of seconds. This seems to be killing Kristoffersen.
Making matters worse? At Sochi, he took a bronze in slalom to Hirscher’s silver. And at the last two World Championships he’s just missed the slalom podium, coming in fourth both times. (He also came in fourth last year in GS). I can’t imagine better revenge than Olympic victory at Pyeongchang. But it’s more likely he’ll be wearing silver (and semi-fuming) instead.
Ted Ligety (GS, maybe combined): When it comes to the Olympics, U.S. veteran Ligety has a pretty shiny shelf. He’s won the GS at the Olympics once and at the World Champs three times in a row; he’s also won both Olympic and World Champs gold in the combined and World Champs gold in super-G.
Thanks to a series of injuries, he hasn’t had the best couple of seasons since then. But that may be turning around. After not climbing the World Cup podium since October 2015, he just came in third at the GS in Garmisch. That could give the reigning Olympic GS champ the confidence he needs to fight to defend his GS title. It’s a long shot. But if he can pull it off, there should be a lot of champagne over at the U.S. team’s lodgings.
Alexis Pinturault (GS, maybe slalom, super-G and combined): Pinturault is the kind of ski racer you almost never seen any more: the almost complete all-arounder. He skis every event except for downhill. And that doesn’t only require a serious variety of skills. It also necessarily means less time to train for each event, and much less time compared to your competition–not only are you not training super-G each time you train slalom, for example, but conversely, your single- or dual-discipline competitors are training speed each time you’re not.
GS, though, is Pinturault’s specialty. The Frenchman was the bronze medallist in GS at Sochi and at the Championships in 2015, and he’s had a solid season this year that’s put him third in the overall GS standings so far (behind Hirscher and Kristoffersen). He’s also in a good position for the combined, an event he won this year at Val d’Isere and which plays on his all-arounder’s skills.
His best results in both slalom and super-G this season, on the other hand, have been fifth—further away, but still within striking distance of a medal.
Michael Matt (slalom, maybe GS): Team Austria’s other big hope for a medal in slalom, the 24-year-old Matt is going into his first Olympics on a season that’s showed as much potential as inconsistency: He took second place three times in a row this January. But then he followed it up with a sixth and two DNFs, getting thrown out of the course at Kitzbühel and then at Schladming. In terms of Olympic medals he’s a wild card. But if he can finish, he may finish big. He’s also a GS skier, where he’s had one third-place finish on the tour this season.
Andrew Weibrecht (super-G): If you look at his World Cup results, it seems almost impossible that the 31-year-old American could have a shot at a medal. But that’s been true in almost every season that… he’s medaled. Weibrecht won silver in super-G at Sochi and bronze at Whistler, even though all but one of his World Cup finishes in 2014 was 20th or worse (and in 2010, his best was 11th). He hasn’t done even that well this season—his best has been 21st in super-G—but we’re including him here because, especially when it comes to big-ticket events, the veteran never fails to surprise us.
Journalist and editor Amanda Ruggeri writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After growing up skiing in Vermont and learning to race on a tiny hill in Connecticut, she now lives in London, where the snow is rare but the Alps are close. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.