For two days before her first World Cup of last season in Semmering, Austria, Andreja Slokar was consumed with nerves and the question of “What if?” What if I’m not good enough? Until then, the 23-year-old Slovenian had never scored a World Cup point, despite the early promise that earned her world junior championship appearances in 2017 and 2018. Instead, she had struggled with various injuries and, when healthy, developed an aggressive “send it” style that made her very fast in sections but also led to huge mistakes.
On this day, wearing bib 65, Slokar made such a big mistake on the top of the course that she came into the finish dejected and angry, thinking she’d blown another precious World Cup chance. It was not until a competitor came up and congratulated her that she dared look at the board, and saw she was in 16th place. “It was such a relief,” Slokar recalls.
For the second run her coach counseled her to “just go for it.” She did, and fell, but already something in her mind had shifted. She knew she had World Cup speed. A couple weeks later, in the Flachau slalom, she built on that confidence and scored her first World Cup points, with a 23rd-place finish. Slokar followed that up with a 19th in GS a few days later. Leading into the Cortina world championships, the unheralded Slovenian racer, after scoring in just one slalom, felt a new pressure. Already, the press was calling her Slovenia’s top slalom skier. As she warmed up for the first run of the slalom in Cortina, that pressure was so great that she felt like she could not breathe.
Rather than panic or doubt herself, she relied on the extensive work she’d done with her sports psychologist, and the steadying effect of the team she’d built around her. “They help me keep my head clean and looking forward,” says Slokar.
At the end of that day, Slovenia’s B Team skier had finished fifth in the world championship slalom, firmly establishing herself among skiing’s most elite. She would go on to score six more top 20 results in the World Cup season, including three top 10s, in slalom, GS and parallel. Additionally, she won the Europa Cup slalom title and placed second in the Europa Cup overall.
Pretty impressive for an athlete who contemplated quitting a year earlier. “It was a crazy year,” says Slokar, who struggles to describe it, and settles on: “It was a Rollercoaster!”
The Covid reset
Slokar’s wild ride started in February of 2020, at a low point. She injured her knee just before Covid shut down the world. At the time, she did not know when or even if she could have surgery, and expected to lose the 20-21 season. “Everything was up in the air. I did not know what to expect.”
With more questions than answers about the road ahead, she recommitted to her training. The first positive piece fell into place when Boštjan Božič signed on as her coach. Božič was joined by a physio trainer and ski tech Igor Plešivčnik, who formerly worked with the Norwegian team but had been freed up due to Norway’s tight Covid restrictions.
Team Slokar decided to hold off on the uncertainties of surgery and concentrate on things it could control. “We saw the mental aspect was an issue and decided on a new approach,” says Božič. Slokar noticed that every time she started to think about results her skiing fell apart. Božič’s solution: “We didn’t have one single goal. Our only goal was each turn.” Focusing on the skiing, rather than results, lifted the stress for the entire team. They talked about mistakes, learned from them, and used them to set new training goals.
This was especially helpful in GS, where Slokar had struggled since first making the Europa Cup team, years earlier. “I got extremely scared whenever I would put on GS skis,” she recalls. With Božič’s approach that emphasized improvement in technique and tactics over results, “I completely forgot how uncomfortable GS made me feel.”
Another key piece of her success was Nordica. Slokar enjoys the advantages of working with a small team that Nordica Race Director Bernhard Knauss describes as fast and flexible. “She has all access at any time to our race facility and the service team,” says Knauss.
As she became more involved in testing, the relationships strengthened. “In the beginning, I was nervous: What if they bring me stuff to test and I don’t know what to say or I won’t feel the difference?” Now, Slokar sees the relationship as a huge advantage. “If I like it, I say so, and if I don’t, they will change it. They are prepared to do anything for me.”
Comfort with her equipment has brought her slalom and GS to a new level, and also introduced the element of speed. Smaller countries like Slovenia struggle to find resources and venues for speed training, so they typically concentrate on tech. Until last year, Slokar had no speed skis. With her recent success, however, it is easier to jump in with other countries for speed training and the small Slovene team has incorporated basic speed elements like rollers and jumps into its training.
Super G has made Slokar more comfortable at GS speed, and training more GS has in turn helped her slalom. “I don’t want to concentrate just on one discipline because I would like to be a whole skier, and I think that everything adds up.”
Božič also saw the positive side of her emotions, even her anger at making mistakes. “She releases a lot of stress with that,” he says. Countering that is the calming influence of her service tech. “With Igor, we hit jackpot,” says Božič, who described the critical role Plešivčnik plays by calming her before the race and at the start. “She is a person you really don’t need to push much.”
With help from her boyfriend, Davide Brignone, (a coach for the Italian team), she learned to speak Italian very quickly. As one of the few foreign racers who gives TV interviews in Italian, she is a fan favorite in Nordica’s home country. Nordica business manager Luka Grilc sees Slokar’s contribution as much more than her results. “Andreja is a real Nordican who is a part of our small ‘family’ and can represent the brand and products in the best possible way. Andreja is a perfect fit for Nordica.”
Another piece of Slokar’s success has come from her embracing physical training, rather than simply enduring it. In the off-season, she trains without teammates, but with her trainer, and Brignone, both of whom push her. “I think it helps a lot to train with better athletes than yourself.”
At the end of last season, Slokar addressed the knee injury, a partially torn ACL. Because the knee was so stable she opted to repair the meniscus, and was back skiing and training on the glaciers in three weeks. In addition to knee injuries, a thumb injury two years ago left Slokar with extremely limited use in her right hand. She has difficulty holding a pole, and in the start depends on Plesivcnic to buckle her boots on that side. “It’s inspiring how much she loves skiing despite skiing in pain everyday,” says American World Cup skier Lila Lapanja. “She’s a zero-excuse kind of person.”
Rather than look up to any one athlete, Slokar finds inspiration from many sources. She likes to watch the men ski because they are better and faster. “It’s just physics,” she says. “But it is different skiing.” Among the women, she admires Katharina Liensberger’s calm skiing style, but notes “they all have something I like. I don’t concentrate on one.”
Slokar reserves the top spots on her hero pedestal for her parents, neither of whom were ski racers. Her mother, Elda, is the one who first signed Andreja up for ski lessons as a way to burn off her ample energy as a kid. “She has been and still is my rock, and I adore how she is persistent and a strong woman.”
Her father, Andrej, a former basketball player, channeled his innovative spirit into building an ice cream factory from scratch in his garage 30 years ago. Today Incom Lenone is a giant global ice cream and chocolate company. “He has the vision, sets a goal and the only thing he sees is the goal,” says Andreja who, long term, sees herself in her father’s business. She is a few final exams away from finishing her economics degree, and has a deep appreciation for the product — especially the bourbon vanilla ice cream topped with figs and walnuts.
Slokar looks forward to the season openers at Soelden and Levi, then coming to Killington, where she hopes to tack on a shopping trip in Boston for some American fashion. “We have a few hours in between so … why not?”
In keeping with its success formula, Team Slokar is not big on making plans, even in an Olympic year. “She is focusing on small goals, relaxing and doing the best she can,” says Božič. “You have to come relaxed. That is our challenge.” Slokar adds: “For now, I am happy I can ski and I am healthy. That is the most important thing”