Springtime is crunch time. The calendar is packed. Travel miles are mounting. Legs are heavy. Focus is ephemeral. We’re at the point in the season where mood and ambition can mean everything.
Slovak Petra Vlhova’s chances for an overall title just got wings from a 180-point weekend on her home hill in Jasna on the back of a giant slalom win and runner-up finish in the slalom. In fact, the whole team got wings courtesy of the Slovak government, which commissioned a plane to transport Team Vlhova directly from Slovakia to Sweden for the slalom double on Friday and Saturday in Åre.
If you needed any more evidence of the importance this overall title means to this country of 5.5 million people, consider that Slovakian TV didn’t cover women’s skiing until Vlhova and her predecessor, Veronika Velez-Zuzulova, started to win races. Behind cycling mega star, Peter Sagan, Petra Vlhova might just be the county’s most recognized sports star. This is a jumbo-jet sized deal, with the kind of national pressure that Americans might never feel outside the Olympic quadrennial.
Enter the angered Mikaela Shiffrin. As go superstars, you’ll find few so openly polite, grateful and consistently deferential in victory as she. Against that backstory, it made her criticism of the race organizers last weekend reverberate all the louder. She called the two-plus minute race hold “unprofessional.” Right or wrong, it clearly raised her ire. I’ve never heard Shiffrin sound so openly vexed in a post-race interview. Now six days and some 24 hours of travel later, she will have those emotions to contend with along with the stir they created.
From what I saw in the final gates of the slalom in Jasna, I don’t think there is any question who the fastest slalom skier in the world is right now. If Shiffrin shows just some of that speed over the next three slalom races, she will pull ahead of Vlhova, win the slalom title and likely break Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 46 wins in a single discipline. Shiffrin is at 45.
While many things can happen over the course of the remaining six races on the calendar, Vlhova can win the overall title by finishing second, third, or even lower in the three remaining slalom races. But as well as standings-leader Lara Gut-Behrami is skiing in downhill, super G and GS, Vlhova cannot afford a single slalom goose egg by skiing out. Given those consequences, it will be hard to hold off Shiffrin in the race for the slalom title.
There is one caveat. Some 2-to-3 feat of snow have fallen since the hill was water-injected roughly a week ago. It will be firm, but not hard. In other words, it will be easy snow on an easy hill, and that opens the door to more skiers. That might bode well for skiers vying from higher numbers including Americans Paula Moltzan (21), Nina O’Brien (28), Lila Lapanja (37), Resi Stiegler (45) and AJ Hurt (49), who just arrived to the event after her bronze-medal slalom performance at the world junior championship in Bansko, Bulgaria. Moltzan looks to be a shoo-in to rank among the top 25 and qualify for the finals. O’Brien will need two more finishes like her ninth earlier in the season.