And yet between the first writing of that headline and circling back to edit, comes our first surprise. Finnish authorities have just quarantined the entire Swedish team after their head coach tested positive for coronavirus attempting to enter the Levi bubble. That means they will miss two of the nine scheduled slalom races. For stars like slalom specialist Anna Swenn-Larsson, that is devastating.
But onward we must go:
This weekend brings us a special edition of the annual slalom races in Levi, Finland, slightly later on the calendar, minus the men and a double dose of women’s racing under the lights Saturday and Sunday.
The marquee matchup at these races is no big secret. We’ll all be watching Mikaela Shiffrin, who will make her return to racing after the sudden loss of her father nearly 10 months ago, and Petra Vlhova, who by all accounts has not missed a beat this offseason amid pandemic restrictions.
Aside from those two, the only other woman in the field who has won a World Cup slalom race will be Canada’s Erin Mielzynski, who did so in 2012. Other recent winners — Nina Haver-Loeseth, Frida Hansdotter and Veronika Velez-Zuzulová — have all retired, and the Shiffrin-Vhlova rivalry has dominated the top step of the slalom podium.
This is as predictable as ski racing gets.
However, conditions could certainly come into play with warm and rainy weather characterizing much of the week leading up to the races. The sloppier it gets, the more unpredictable it becomes. On one hand, Shiffrin told me her two weeks of slalom training leading into Levi were as good as — or better than — any previous year. On the other, she knows she won’t be skiing Colorado conditions. That’s the bigger question. She simply lacks the miles and, therefore, variety because she’s skied less in this prep period than any previous lead-in to a World Cup season, by far.
Add to that the well-documented heartache and disruptions she has suffered since losing her father last winter, and one could imagine she might be willing to cut herself some slack this season, particularly as it gets going.
To that she said, that’s not how her father raised her. “If anything, I’ll probably give myself less leash.” That wasn’t meant as an intolerance for losing, so much as a promise to make every effort to win. In any case, she was clearly excited to get on with racing 300 days after her last start.
Petra, on the other hand, has been pinned to the grindstone this entire offseason and was able to secure training in Finland ahead of these races, which is no easy feat in these times of COVID.
According to her coach, Livio Magoni, they’ve not squandered the opportunity, going as far as replicating some of the features of the Levi Black course, such as the sharp roll that took Vhlova out last year. And, leaving no stone unturned, he will have Vlhova train on the course he will set on Day 1, run No. 2. That’s some detail.
Outside of the big two, I would have put Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson as the primary threat to the establishment, but now she’s quarantining. Like Vhlova, she didn’t miss a beat this offseason and enjoyed the best preparation available, along with the rest of the Swedish team.
Other sidebar stories … There’s a date that is seared in the mind of every Austrian, and that is Nov. 30, 2014 — the last time an Austrian woman won a World Cup slalom. It was Nicole Hosp in Aspen, and it’s the longest drought the Austrian women have ever had in a single discipline. Not to mention they are coming off their third-worst GS team result at Soelden on home snow last month. So, Vhlova and Shiffrin are not the only ones feeling pressure. Keep an eye out for OSV’s Katharina Liensberger, who has shown impressive resolve under pressure. I’m told, she’s the current gold standard among the Austrian slalom squad.
Also on display I think we’ll see the emergence of a U.S. women’s tech “team” with Paula Moltzan and Nina O’Brien hitting their stride. They finished 10th and 15th, respectively, in the opening Soelden GS. (Shiffrin did not race due to injury.) Last weekend, they confirmed their pace, winning some version of the Italian championships. O’Brien won the GS and Motzan outclassed everyone in the slalom.
I sense this is the year where the U.S. women’s tech team will be recognized as a considerable force, and not just the “Shiffrin show.” The measure of a national team is not so much its champions, but its depth. And, for the first time in a long time, the U.S. women look poised to measure up with the top teams on the circuit.
Moltzan, who caught the world by surprise with her 10th-place GS finish in Soelden last month, will get back to what has historically been her strength — slalom — although she’s never liked being called a slalom specialist. She’s certainly earned that right. That designation was placed onto her, and she seems to be enjoying proving folks wrong. If the conditions sour, both Motlzan and O’Brien will need to defy the odds again as it looks like neither will start inside the top 30.
UPDATE: Between recent injuries, retirements and now the absence of the Swedes, it appears Moltzan will start in the top 30 versus starting in the mid 40s. I think.
Historically, however, this race has a tendency to be friendly to racers with high numbers. Half of the terrain is quite moderate and the course generally holds up very well. While I don’t anticipate much of a challenge to the top of the podium, you can be on the lookout for some breakout performances further down the result sheet, especially on Day 2, when some of the less-experienced racers will get a second look at the hill.