Slovenia is a small country in Central Europe, which sits between Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary. With a population that hovers around two million people, there aren’t as many ski racers there as in countries like Austria or the United States. However, that hasn’t stopped the Slovenes from producing top athletes like the legendary Tina Maze.

When Maze stopped racing in 2015 ­– and then officially announced her retirement in 2016 – it was unclear who would carry the torch for Slovenia in the coming seasons. That is until the first downhill race of the 2016-17 World Cup season in Lake Louise, Canada.

Ilka Stuhec pushed out the start gate with bib 29 on Dec. 2, 2016. The 26-year-old athlete’s best result until that day was fourth place in the Beaver Creek, Colo., super-G back in 2013. She had a handful of top-10 finishes in downhill, super-G and alpine combined that season as well. However, she’d never landed on a podium.

Image Credit: GEPA

All that changed when she came through the finish line in Canada with the green light and grabbed her first of several World Cup victories this season. I’ll be the first to admit Stuhec completely surprised me. In my mind, she came out of nowhere, but I soon found out how wrong I was.

At the time, I had no idea that Stuhec was a three-time Junior World Champion, earning gold medals in slalom, alpine combined and downhill. The year she won the alpine combined – 2007 – was the same year that Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather and Switzerland’s Lara Gut went 1-2 in the Junior World Championships downhill. It turns out that Stuhec has been competitive with the best female racers in the world for more than a decade. But as of late, her career has been plagued by injury. That’s why for some, like me, her recent success came as a surprise.

Ilka Stuhec with Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria and Marusa Ferk of Slovenia at the 2007 World Junior Championships. Image Credit: GEPA

Since that first race in Lake Louise, Stuhec has won four additional World Cups and earned a new title, downhill world champion, which meant keeping the title in the Slovenia after Maze won it in 2015.

“I’m honored to keep the gold medal at home because we are not a very huge nation, but we have a lot of good athletes,” Stuhec says.

Of course, success like Stuhec’s does not just come from individual effort. She is heavily supported by her mom, Darja Crnkov, much like slalom superstar Mikaela Shiffrin and her mom Eileen. Crnkov serves as Stuhec’s ski technician, and Stuhec says that when she wins, the victories are shared.

“It’s really awesome to have her around all the time, and I’m really glad she does that even though it’s really hard work and it gets really tiring for her,” Stuhec says. “But on the moments like this, I think everything is repaid.”

Her mom became a more prominent part of the Slovene’s team throughout her injuries.

“All the support I get from my mom, I can’t describe,” Stuhec expresses. “We started working together after my injury in the bad times, when there weren’t as many supporters as there are now. It’s amazing where we’ve come since then.”

Image Credit: Agence Zoom

This season, Stuhec and her mom have been working with some new skis, the brand Stoeckli.

“I switched skis at the end of last season, which made the whole summer a bit more exciting because I was trying them on a little bit, getting to know them, and they are working really, really nicely,” Stuhec said back in Val d’Isere, France, when she won her third straight downhill race. “I mean I love it.”

At the same race, she confided that her training partners have given her extra mental strength.

“Most of the time, we’re training with our men’s speed team, so every run I could see how I am supposed to ski and trying to get close to them, and getting closer and closer got me more and more confident,” she says.

That confidence (and her skiing abilities) have allowed her to secure her first ever World Cup discipline globe in alpine combined and put her in the lead in the World Cup downhill standings with 470 total points, 137 points ahead of her closest challenger Sofia Goggia of Italy. With only the downhill race in Jeongseon, South Korea, and the World Cup Finals in Aspen, Colo., yet to be contested, it seems highly probable that she will win the downhill globe this March.

And with Stuhec’s podium ability in super-G and alpine combined while also skiing top 15 results in the tech disciplines, it now seems that this Slovenian could be a future overall title contender as well.