The women’s World Cup returned to the Olympic village of Sestriere, Italy, on Saturday for the first time since 2016 to contest giant slalom at the same site where Julia Mancuso sported her famous tiara on the medals platform after winning gold in 2006. Americans had much to cheer about this time around as well, though the home crowd would drown out all other sounds by the end of the second run.
If you haven’t been watching women’s giant slalom this season, it’s high time to tune in. Against crystal clear skies and an azure backdrop, each competitor continued to up the ante for the next with aggressive and dynamic skiing as they have done all winter long. The top eight racers representing eight different nations delivered a notable diversity rarely seen at the highest level of the sport.
By the day’s end, home favorite Federica Brignone would claim her second GS victory of the season in a dead heat with World Champion Petra Vlhova who grabbed her first win of the winter in the discipline. Chasing ever so closely behind was Overall leader Mikaela Shiffrin, who charged hard in the second run to move onto the podium by the narrowest possible margin – just 0.01 seconds from the win.
“I just saw that I was the same time as Petra and we were one-hundredth before Mikaela, so that was a close one and a tight one,” an exuberant Brignone said following the win. “It’s amazing – the crowd – can you listen and can you see? Today is crazy. I’m just so happy, I’m exploded. I can’t say what I feel right now.”
As the first sun beams of the morning hit the slope, there was no opportunity for a defending champion from the 2016 race to rise again. Tessa Worley, the last victor, announced just after the New Year that she had to undergo an unplanned surgical procedure on her right knee. Despite sitting in fifth place in the GS season standings, she is sidelined for the near future. That left the door wide open for new stories to be written down the Giovanni Alberto Agnelli trail.
Brignone set a fast opening pace on the first lap by running her skis in a slightly more controlled manner than is typical for her, but it was sufficient to hold a 0.17-second lead over Vlhova. The Slovakian found noticeable speed just before the finish line to put herself in contention. Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, winner of the most World Cup GS races among active female athletes, turned it up a notch and looked hungry for her return to the podium. Shiffrin fought for a clean run but had a few lapses of chatter that landed her 0.42 seconds off the lead but still within striking distance.
The Austrian coach setting second run snuck one more turning gate onto the hill that was basked in sun for the afternoon’s showdown. Shiffrin appeared confident and in control as she tactically dissected the course, producing the fastest second-run time and lining herself up for potential victory. When Rebensburg lost her second gear and cruised down well shy of Shiffrin, the American was guaranteed a podium result at the very worst.
Despite losing her form midway through the second run, Vlhova could not be denied. She used her newfound confidence from slalom to reignite her speed through the final intermediate. The light was green and the margin minuscule, but she landed on the right side of one hundredth.
“It is amazing to share the podium with Fede [Brignone] because we are the Rossignol family,” said Vlhova. “This year for me it’s the first podium and first victory [in giant slalom] so I am so, so happy.”
The last challenger, Brignone, kept the audience gritting its teeth as she lost time down the track but pushed with sheer will to hang on for a win. Chainsaws, horns, and cheers filled the air as Brignone stood in the finish area with a green light on the scoreboard. By matching Vlhova’s time across the line, she became the first Italian woman to win a World Cup giant slalom race at Sestriere after her mother, Maria-Rosa Quario, achieved the same feat for slalom in 1983.
The only race on the women’s World Cup tour with a tighter result was a three-way tie for the 2006 super-G win at Hafjell between Lindsey Vonn, Michaela Dorfmeister, and Nadia Styger, with Canadian Kelly VanderBeek only 0.01 seconds behind in fourth.
“At the end it’s one hundredth and third, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I know, especially last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side too,” Shiffrin admitted. “For me giant slalom has always been maybe the most difficult event to find my timing and the technique because you have to be pushing 100 percent, super aggressive with the line and with how you’re skiing but also really precise with the technique. So it can be really challenging to find the balance between those two, and it’s so easy to lose the time if you’re not going as hard as you can. Right now I think a lot of the athletes have a good idea of what that balance needs to be and then you get all these different winners and everybody’s hungry.”
After finishing on the podium in nine out of 10 technical and two speed races, Shiffrin retains a firm grip on the Overall lead with 946 points to Vlhova’s 713. Brignone is third with 665 points following her back-to-back tour victories.
The American superstar was joined in the points by teammate Nina O’Brien who qualified for the second run from 30th position and ultimately finished 29th for her fifth scoring result this year. No other North Americans qualified for the second run, but University of Vermont alumna Kristina Riis-Johannessen of Norway produced a career-best result – and by a long shot – by skiing into 12th place from bib 41.
Sestriere marked the fifth of nine giant slalom races this winter, so the season title remains very much up for grabs. Brignone leads the hunt with 375 points to Shiffrin’s 314, followed by Marta Bassino’s 264.
The women will race a knockout parallel giant slalom for the first time ever on the World Cup tour on Sunday at Sestriere. Although the men have contested this format five times in Alta Badia, the women have yet to test out the new set. Racing gets underway with a qualification run in the morning followed by the Round of 32 and subsequent heats.
Top-10 – Sestriere, women’s GS
- Federica Brignone (ITA): 2:21.15
- Petra Vlhova (SVK): 2:21.15
- Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): +0.01
- Wendy Holdener (SUI): +0.38
- Alice Robinson (NZL): +0.44
- Meta Hrovat (SLO): +0.92
- Viktoria Rebensburg (GER): +1.09
- Sara Hector (SWE): +1.54
- Sofia Goggia (ITA): +1.65
- Marta Bassino (ITA): +1.74
View complete results here.