The Snow Queen crown has officially been placed upon a head other than Mikaela Shiffrin’s for the first time since 2017. On Saturday, Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova bested the American slalom star under the lights on the Sljeme track in Zagreb, Croatia to earn her first win over the American in the 2019/20 season.
“Petra was on the highest level today for sure, and then I was somewhere behind her, and the rest of the field was a little bit farther away,” said Shiffrin. “That’s how it’s been with her and with me because we both have this hunger and we are pushing each other so far. We have this rivalry that’s pushing us both to this new level and on some races sometimes it just feels like it’s her against me.”
Saturday’s event under the lights in Zagreb felt much like one of those races. Vlhova skied the course and off-putting terrain flawlessly, separating herself from Shiffrin by 1.31 seconds. While it seems as if a second is a large margin, Shiffrin was the only athlete on Saturday that posed a threat to the Slovakian. A big mistake in the first run set her back far enough in time that she could not quite close the gap, despite skiing a clean and aggressive second run. Her efforts further emphasized the hold that the American/Slovakian duo has over the top two spots on the slalom podium. The rest of the field did not even come close to touching the pair. Austria’s Katharina Liensberger finished 3.49 seconds behind Vlhova, and 2.18 seconds behind Shiffrin.
“I really respect the discipline [Petra] brings to her skiing and I feel like today that was on another level,” said Shiffrin. “I’m often known for being one of the skiers that has a lot of discipline. But when I’m watching her, she brings so much power, so much discipline, and the course today really suited her so she was just able to take full advantage of all the speed.”
Last week in Lienz, Austria, Vlhova fell short in the slalom, disappointed as she had thought that race would finally be the race that she beat Shiffrin fair and square. Not because Shiffrin made a mistake, but because she was the fastest racer that day. Fast forward one week later and Vlhova finally achieved her goal. Coincidentally, at a race where Vlhova’s fan club arrived in droves, frantically waving the Slovakian flag and beating down on mobile snare drums, chanting her name.
“I did my best, and today was my day so I am so so happy,” said Vlhova. “This morning I felt so good and so strong. It’s always good to be on the top of the podium and to beat Miki because she is always strong and she skis perfect. Today I won more than one second ahead of Miki so what more could I want.”
Vlhova knows these instances where she ends the day on the top step of the podium in a slalom race are few and far in between when Shiffrin is competing against her. In the Vlhova-Shiffrin rivalry thus far, Shiffrin has won 18 races and had 20 podiums from 2018-2020. Vlhova has only had three wins and 13 podiums. A win in Zagreb signals to Vlhova that she is on the right track, and that she is capable of beating the slalom superstar.
“[This means that] I can beat her, and that I have it [in me] to ski faster than Miki,” said Vlhova. “Today it was like this, tomorrow or in Flachau, it can be different.”
Vlhova’s team is also acutely aware of the statistics that lean in Shiffrin’s favor. Vlhova may be strong and steady in the slalom, but there are a few components in her skiing and in her training atmosphere that don’t quite stack up in comparison to Shiffrin’s output. For this reason, Vlhova’s coach, Livio Magoni, often sends folks to tape Shiffrin’s training sessions throughout the season.
Magoni’s team does not just film Shiffrin’s training runs, they film her entire staff, absorbing every bit of intel they can muster from observing how the best team in ski racing operates. Magoni says that he watches video of Shiffrin almost every day, in addition to other top athletes. For him, watching video is a learning process, and he wants to be learning all of the time. He feels lucky to be able to access other team’s “intellectual property,” as training has not yet been protected by bylaws as in other sports.
“It’s important to look at Mikaela because she is the best skier in the world,” said Magoni. “For us, it’s really important because we can look really well at how to make some small improvements in the skis. If you are intelligent, you can really learn a lot. How the skiers are thinking, but also how the team around [them] moves. As a head coach, it’s important to see how others manage their teams.”
Throughout her career, Shiffrin has been known to train and practice privately. But unlike team sports, alpine ski racers do not have the luxury of truly training in private. Courses are set on mountains and hills where any person can buy a ski pass and have access to the same terrain. Although Shiffrin and her team attempt to minimize interaction with other athletes and onlookers by training in their own lane, or on their own run, it’s hard to avoid the extra attention when folks like Magoni will stop at nothing to learn from the best.
In an exclusive interview with Ski Racing Media and NBC Sports, Shiffrin shared that she often is frustrated by this concept, saying she finds it unnerving that a team would send someone out of their way, to a venue their athlete may not even be training at, in order to film her and her staff. While Shiffrin did not name any names in the clip shared below, Magoni’s openness about the subject draws a clear connection.
“What I’m producing with my skiing, I see that as my property,” says Shiffrin. “That’s something that I’ve created with my coaches and with the people that I work with. It’s something I’ve created intellectually and physically put it out in the world. That’s something I’ve been able to do and nobody taught me how to do that.”
In Magoni’s eyes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. If someone were to take a video of his team and his athlete, he knows he wouldn’t be extremely happy, but he would be proud that somebody thought they could learn something from the Slovakia team.
“I know that it’s really not correct, but in opposite vision, it’s also well that somebody makes video of the other starters because this means they are intelligent and they want to learn, and they want to learn from the best athlete’s and team,” argues Magoni. “Sometimes we have some problems, but it’s our job.”
Shiffrin is not the first alpine athlete to have her strategies taped. Bode Miller is another example of boundary-pushing great, a man who would lay out everything he had in downhill training run, only to have teams steal his line and cause him to fall short on race day. Despite her frustrations, Shiffrin is aware that these decisions fall on the back of the coaches and the staff that make them, not necessarily the athlete.
“I’ve never been the athlete that’s motivated by one person that made me angry,” said Shiffrin. “When I’m watching Petra ski, I know how hard she’s working because I’m doing this as well. She has this amazing team around her giving her this support and they’re doing an amazing job. She is one of the few people who has been able to do the work in the right way to earn these victories over me, even when I’m skiing really well, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”
The slalom rivalry between Shiffrin and Vlhova shall continue in Flachau, Austria on January 14th. Shiffrin currently leads the slalom overall standings, separating her by 120 points over Vlhova. Shiffrin also leads Vlhova in the overall standings, by a total of 313 points.
- Petra Vlhova (SVK): 1:57.98
- Mikaela Shiffrin (USA): +1.31
- Katharina Liensberger (AUT): +3.49
- Wendy Holdener (SUI): +3.60
- Anna Swenn Larsson (SWE): +3.62
- Nina Haver-Loeseth (NOR): +3.79
- Katharina Truppe (AUT): +4.42
- Aline Danioth (SUI): +4.54
- Kristin Lysdahl (NOR): +4.70
- Emelie Wikstroem (SWE): +4.89
For full race results, click here.