This weekend, Petra Vlhova will head to the slope she knows better than anyone to try to regain control over her campaign to deliver Slovakia its first overall title. It’s a homecoming that could not be better timed as she trails Lara Gut-Behrami by 187 points in the overall and cannot wait another race to reverse the momentum. The deficit is not insurmountable with four slaloms comprising nearly half the remaining nine races on the calendar. The near-flawless command Gut-Behrami has in GS, SG and DH means Vlhova cannot falter, and a last-minute switch in the calendar might lend a hand.
Due to inclement weather the organizers in Jasna have moved the slalom to tomorrow and pushed the GS to Sunday. Even though she’ll be up against the greatest slalom skier of all time, Mikaela Shiffrin, and world champion Kathi Liensberger, both of whom spent the last nine days resting and training, Vlhova is as good a bet as any to land somewhere on the podium. And that might just provide the spark her giant slalom has lacked in the last month. If she can take roughly a third of the deficit out of the Swiss’ lead in the overall by the end of the weekend, it could be the psychological nudge she’ll need to keep pushing through the final two weeks of the season.
Vlhova will simultaneously be trying to hold off Liensberger, Shiffrin and Michelle Gisin in the race for the slalom title. With all three skiers inside 80 points of the Slovak’s lead, it’s within each skiers’ control to seize the title. Shiffrin has done everything she can to make good on her mission to “find two more seconds in my slalom,” as she told reporters after she trailed Liensberger by just that much in the world championships. According to her coach Mike Day, she skied eight of the nine days between Cortina and their arrival in Slovakia, six of those days in the slalom gates with a particular emphasis on the high-speed sets that have been the hallmark of 2021. After a glimpse of tomorrow’s first run set, Day confirmed that the approach was time well spent. It’s a ripper.
As for the GS standings, Italy’s Marta Bassino looks like she can coast to the finish to take home that title with her 124-point lead and two races remaining. She’s won four races, finished third in another and only a second-run DNF kept her from reaching the podium in every World Cup GS she has started. If her form at the recent world championship is any indication, her fire is fading ever so slightly. Perhaps she feels it, as she decided just today to skip the slalom to focus solely on the Sunday GS. Given the events of the Cortina championship, the giant slalom podium has a few more suitors. If not for very big errors, both Liensberger and Nina O’Brien would be wearing GS medals. Add them to the list of regular contenders, such as Shiffrin, Gut-Behrami, Tessa Worley, Fede Brignone, and a returning-to-form Alice Robinson. Now, you understand just how important tomorrow is for Petra Vlhova to reach Sunday with momentum.
It could be one of the most important weekends of her career, as she returns to where she grew up racing, to the hill that opened just for her last spring during the Covid lockdown, where she has returned throughout the season to train. This is her moment.