While the elements conspired to replace two of the most difficult men’s World Cup slaloms with more user-friendly editions in Flachau, Austria, the degree of difficulty on the women’s side went from a back dive to a double twisting double back.
That is, the scheduled races in Maribor, Slovenia — a gentle slope with a base altitude of 1,066 feet — have been canceled because, once again, there is no snow. Perhaps no other venue has had its races thwarted so often by warm temperatures on the coldest month of the calendar than this one. So, the races have been picked up by its neighbor in the snowier region of Kranjska Gora, which sits two hours east on the Austrian border, almost 2,000 feet higher.
It’s used primarily by the men with 81 World Cup races contested going back to the dawn of the World Cup. This will be only the fourth GS stop in 15 years for the women, mostly as a result of canceled races in Maribor.
This edition promises a higher start than used by the women in recent years, which will add to the speed entering the wavy, off-camber turns through the middle. Then it’s a roughly 15-second dive into the finish. The venue has been pummeled with snow recently and course workers are folding in water, along with water-injecting. If it turns cold, it will surely test the faint of heart. If not, it will surely test the faint of heart but call more on force of will versus force of finesse.
It’s hard for me to forget the power, aggression and unabated acceleration of 19-year-old Alice Robinson’s 2020 assault on that hill, winning second run by a half-second over the nearest skier and a full second over everyone else. She’s been suffering something of a sophomore slump, but as good as women’s giant slalom skiing has been this year, it’s hard to imagine that same level of skiing could not win in 2021.
This year, the speed standard has been set by Italy’s Marta Bassino. She won the opening two giant slalom races, though she came apart in Courchevel, where the terrain upended her aggressive tactics. The same could be said of her teammate Fede Brignone, who barely hung on for second place. Said winner Mikaela Shiffrin, “It was not lost on me that she slid on her face for an entire gate and was still second.”
But you have to stay on your feet, and Shiffrin’s are looking more and more sure as the season goes on. Or maybe it’s the return of her focus that she says has been so fleeting? How often have we watched Shiffrin pull back time or extend the lead in the latter third of the course? The right answer is about as often as she’s started, surely in slalom. That’s been less evident this year, sometimes losing time. Or, is she losing her storied focus?
But the glassy gaze we’ve seen more than a few times in the finish this year gave way on Tuesday to what might have been the first finish scream ever uttered by this champion. That’s after 67 other opportunities to cry out in World Cup victory. An awakening? Not even her coach Mike Day knows. He just knows the waves of grief that still come and go have recently lightened. She’s physically fresh like she’s never been at this time of year, no longer recovering from the four trips over the ocean and three trips across North America in the month of November, to then run a breathless European schedule through mid-January.
That freshness comes with a caveat, which is the case for all non-Europeans. Life with COVID has meant dashing from one hotel to the next and holing up, rather than going home between races. Mike Day, for one, hardly leaves his room. His diet is rich with peanut butter and jelly sandos and whatever perishables he has fresh alongside frozen peas. I guess that’s one way to stay hungry.
Update: Paula Moltzan announced Friday that she has tested positive for COVID-19 and will be unable to participate in this weekend’s giant slalom events in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. Fortunately, Moltzan is asymptomatic and otherwise well. She has been self-isolating since the positive test.