From Bratislava to Liptovsky Mikulas to Kosice, the Slivovitz, a celebratory drink in honor of Petra Vlhova, is flowing.
Vlhova’s overall World Cup victory clinched in Saturday’s slalom finale in Lenzerheide has provoked an outpouring of pride, joy, emotion and tears throughout Slovakia, a small Central European nation of 5.5 million residents.
Her triumph comes at an exceedingly difficult time for Slovakia as the nation is currently in a hard lockdown due to another wave of the coronavirus. If not for the restrictions, there would certainly be widespread revelry and celebrations throughout the nation’s pubs, city squares and streets. However, you can bet that there will more than a few toasts across homes with the aforementioned plum spirit.
Vlhova’s overall title – the first ever won by a Slovak or Czechoslovakian ski racer in 54 years of World Cup ski racing – has inspired the predominantly working-class nation, while bringing tears of joy.
“I think all Slovakia is crying at the moment – today thousands of people changed their profile photos on social sites to her face,” said Darka Sefcik, 32, a dedicated Vlhova fan from the eastern city of Kosice. “She is a superhero, a celebrity. Veronika Velez-Zuzulova is crying on TV at the moment. It is a big day for Slovakia.”
Veronika Pullmanova, a journalist for the country’s daily sports newspaper Dennik Sport, says that Vlhova’s accomplishment places Slovakia on the world’s sporting map.
“Maybe people will now finally know that we are Slovakia and not Slovenia,” Pullmanova jokes. “It’s a huge achievement for a small country. Slovakia has no national (ski) team, only private teams like Petra’s and Veronika (Zuzulova) in the past.”
“Slovaks can turn from singing ‘I have a dream’ to ‘winner takes it all,’” says Denisa Turcanova, a 33-year-old sports enthusiast from Spisska Nova Ves. “We cannot be more proud.”
Vlhova locked up the title, albeit with an uncharacteristic and disappointing sixth place slalom showing on Saturday, dashing her chances to repeat as World Cup slalom champion. The race and discipline title was won by the 22-year-old Austrian world champion Katarina Liensberger.
Still, the 25-year-old Slovak racer from Liptovsky Mikulas, which is just 15 kilometers from Jasna Ski Resort, earned 40 points, vaulting her to an insurmountable 136-point advantage over Lara Gut-Behrami. After the race, Vlhova dropped to the snow near the finish, covering her hands over her face and hiding her emotions.
Vlhova told Slovak RTVS television that she was distraught over losing the slalom globe and probably will not realize the magnitude of her overall title until Sunday.
“It was our goal from the beginning of the season, we went for it and I’m really happy,” Vlhova said on Saturday. “I will probably only fully grasp it tomorrow when I hold the globe in my hand.”
Pred chvíľou som telefonovala s Petrou Vlhovou. Poďakovala som sa jej za výnimočnú…
Slovakian president Zuzana Caputova called Vlhova to congratulate her and also posted a poignant message on her Facebook page.
Caputova wrote: “Petra, thank you! I called Petra Vlhova a while ago. I thanked her for her exceptional representation and great performances throughout the season, which brought joy to all of us during this challenging period and became a symbol of determination, perseverance and unwavering will. The win of the Great Crystal Globe is an extraordinary success in the history of Slovak sport. I wished Petra many more successes, strength, energy and good health. I look forward to our personal meeting.”
Unable to celebrate together in pubs or at parties, Vlhova fans took to social media in record numbers.
“People are posting photos of celebrations from the time she passed the finish,” Sefcik said. “Yes, the COVID situation is hard for everyone, but you can wear a hat with Vlhova’s name and shout at the TV – and we made it.”
‘A real miracle’
An unprecedented, and according to some Slovaks, an unimaginable feat, coming in a sport that plays second fiddle to ice hockey, soccer and tennis, despite the country’s inspiring Tatra Mountains and numerous, mostly small, ski areas.
The roots of ski racing in Slovakia, dating to the former Czechoslovakia prior to the Velvet Revolution of December 1990, are nearly non-existent, according to Lubomir Soucek, a Slovak journalist and Olympics aficionado, who has covered seven Winter Olympics and six world championships
“I can tell you this is a real miracle,” Soucek tells Ski Racing Media. “In the former Czechoslovakia, Nordic skiing was big, but alpine skiing had such a label that this was a bourgeois sport, a western sport for rich people and not something for a socialist country.”
Soucek says that Petra’s outstanding achievement ranks among Slovakia’s ice hockey gold medal from the 2002 world championships, when the nation upset perennial powerhouse Russia, and cycling rock star Peter Sagan’s three consecutive world titles.
“It should be comparable with Peter Sagan’s three world titles, and for the ice hockey, yes it was extremely emotional for the whole country, but at the world championships they are playing only 20-30 percent of the best players because the rest are playing for the Stanley Cup,” Soucek says. “There were fifty-thousand people on the main square in Bratislava wearing the national colors and waving Slovak flags in the cars.
“But if you can count the real sports values, Petra and Peter Sagan are higher,” opined the veteran Slovak journalist.
Soucek says Vlhova’s inspirational winning season will have positive ripple effects throughout the country.
“This is something like when the sun rises because the frustration of our people is really big and this is a source of joy and pride,” he said. “We, Slovaks are able to do something really big, so this is important for many people.”
Team Vlhova: The best is yet to come
Vlhoava’s tight-knit team of about 15 includes her primary coach Livio Magoni, her brother Boris, an assistant coach along with Matej Gemza, servicemen Pierluigi Parravincini and Matteo Baldissarutti, in addition to her father Igor and mother Zuzana, who have supported the current team morally and financially since its inception in 2015.
“It’s unbelievable that Petra achieved this with the help of her parents and all of the sponsors that she gained over the years with her talent,” Pullmanova says.
“We showed that even a small group can achieve great things with passion, hard work and sacrifices,” Magoni said.
Vlhova’s winning formula stems from her consistency on the racehill and an unflappable demeanor, demonstrating tenacity, will and stamina while enduring a grueling schedule of 30 races across all disciplines. Amazingly, she only had two DNF’s.
She notched five victories (three in slalom, one in giant slalom and one in parallel) and nine podiums. However, it was Vlhova’s rapid ascension in downhill and super-G, that was a catalyst to earning the title. The Slovak star sped to three top-ten finishes in seven downhill races and also three in six super-G races, accumulating 322 points in speed events among her current total of 1392 with Sunday’s giant slalom remaining. Without the additional points, she’d currently stand in third place behind Gut-Behrami and Michelle Gisin.
At just 25, many believe that Vlhova’s best is yet to come. Soucek says the Vlhova vs. Mikaela Shiffrin rivalry will only get better.
“Her potential is huge – she started with speed events only last season,” Soucek says. “She is not yet familiar with most tracks around the world, so she can improve a lot in speed events and be the world number one for a couple of years.
“Of course, Mikaela is extremely strong in slalom and giant slalom, and can also race very good downhill even though she didn’t compete in them this season.
“Petra is able to be among the best, minimum five more seasons, if she stays without serious injuries,” he said.
A safe welcome celebration
It remains unclear as to exactly when Vlhova will triumphantly return to Slovakia with the large crystal globe in tow.
“Petra claimed that she is not going to celebrate yet, first some training with new skis and other responsibilities – that is proof of how hard of a worker that she is,” Turcanova said.
However, according to her coach Magoni, the Slovakian government is arranging a special train, departing from Bratislava on Wednesday, so that she can celebrate, socially distanced, with fans across all major cities.
Vlhova will stand proud as the Slovakian flag is raised and the country’s national anthem, Nad Tatrou sa Blyska, is played on Sunday afternoon in Switzerland. It will be an indelible moment for an entire nation. Appropriately, the anthem’s name translates into English as “Lightning Over the Tatras”.
From the High and Low Tatras to Presov, Nitra and beyond, all of Slovakia will be watching.
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