The road to the Word Cup overall title is a marathon of sprints. Today marks the 153 days since the opening race in Soelden, Austria back on October 17, 2020. For those who hit every race, it meant covering 10,500 miles between nine different countries, and that’s without the endless shuttling to find training in between. All of that for less that 50 minutes of actual race time over 29 contests. Only one racer has skied every step of this year’s marathon, and she’s headed into the tunnel for her final lap with the lead: Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova.
If you know your Marathon history, you’ve probably heard the tale: Messenger races from Marathon to Athens, roughly 26 miles, to bring news of Greece’s victory over the invading Persians. After making his announcement, the exhausted messenger collapses and dies. That approximates the sentiments Slovenian’s Tina Maze shared after her ceaseless campaign on the 2013 season where she raced all 35 races — plus all five races at worlds to win three medals — on her way to setting the World Cup season record for points scored: 2414. She subsequently warned racers, such as Mikaela Shiffrin, “Don’t ever do it.”
It happens that her coach at the time, Livio Magoni, is Vlhova’s coach today. He’s seen a thing when it comes to managing a winning season. His take coming into the season was that it’s better to suffer some physical exhaustion in lieu of the mental fatigue that can, in his experience, follow too many days of rest. Since opening day five months ago, Magoni estimates Vhlova has had 10 days of total rest. However, he openly questioned his strategy when his athlete recently started to fade. First, in late January, her GS started looking sluggish. She held her own with two silver medals at the February worlds, but the following speed races suggested her best was possibly behind her.
Maybe, Magoni speculated, they should have skipped a race or two. Almost as quickly as he floated his possible mismanagement, Vlhova’s season got a second wind when she returned to her home hill in Jasna, Slovakia, that included a couple nights in her own bed and a first and second place that helped her close in on the lead of Lara Gut-Behrami. Last week in Sweden, she pulled ahead in the two slaloms, and with the two speed races canceled this week, the three-event Swiss skier ran out of room to fight back against the four-event scoring abilities of the Slovak.
As Vlhova looks to close the door on the overall, which will require no more than finishing top 15 in either the slalom or the GS this weekend, those quiet nights at home might be a fleeting notion. According to some Slovak journalists, the World Cup overall title might go down as one of — if not, the greatest — sporting achievements by a Slovak. In an otherwise hockey-crazed country, three-time Stanley Cup winner Marian Hossa is surely a national hero, but it differs from the achievements of individual sportsmen and sportswomen.
An overall title, Slovak reporter Veronika Pullmanova suggested, might even usurp the achievements of three-time cycling world champion Peter Sagan. The native Slovak, who now resides in Monaco, once told me he must sneak in and out of his country to visit family and not leave the confines of their home. But cycling world champs take place over a single day. His record seven Tour de France sprinter jerseys showed dominance over 21 days. But an overall title measures an entire season, Pullmanova reasons, and it’s a season that has been exceedingly challenging for Slovak fans and media to keep up with their mega star.
In 2016, 15,000 fans assembled at the World Cup in Jasna when Veronika Zuzulova stood a fighting chance for a podium. If not for Covid, organizers projected the 2021 number to double, to get a glimpse of Vlhova. It’s the kind of crowd Mikaela Shiffrin draws in Killington, Vermont, but from a surrounding population of 90 million rather than 5 million.
But when Vlhova does return home, the press conference that is sure to follow is likely to include every media member and outlet without exception, says Pullmanova. “We imagine everyone will be there,” she said. “Even people from the dog and cat magazines.”
Of course, she has to win first. While it seems like an easy lift to score four points over two days, one has to factor in the weight of a nation. The heavier lift will be the smaller slalom globe. Vhlova leads Austria’s Katharina Liensberger by 22 points and Mikaela Shiffrin by 37. Vlhova doesn’t have to win the race to win the title, but skiing for four points won’t do it either. To ensure the slalom title, second or better will do. Once she’s third, if either Shiffrin or Liensberger win, the title will go to either Austria or the U.S.
Liensberger has proven this year, she’s willing to throw caution to the wind in the name of victory. Her most recent slalom run in Are, Sweden was all the evidence anyone needs of that.
In Shiffrin’s case the search for her limit is ongoing. She admitted this week in a press conference that she has had a tougher time narrowing the gap between her storied training speed and that which she has shown on many race days. The speed that has won her 45 slalom races and six slalom titles is still there, according to her coach Mike Day, but in this year of healing, her access to it has been fleeting. Her greatest vulnerability has shown when facing the faster, straighter course sets that have been a hallmark of 2021. Those, along with a preponderance of soft snow.
She might just get some hard snow, but the course set remains to be seen. A win, would further her march toward becoming the most decorated skier of all time. For Petra Vlhova, tomorrow she could well cement herself as one of the greatest athletes in Slovak history, to say nothing of the possibility of getting named “Pet of the Week.”