The greatest durable sports careers are generally characterised by a rivalry with an opponent who has similar ability or skill to oneself. Consider the pairings of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, among others.
Mikaela Shiffrin, the American ski racing sensation who is on track to shatter every major Alpine record, has never had a competitor who has consistently challenged or outperformed her.
She is doing so right now. Shiffrin’s supremacy has been put to the test, and the result has been her greatest skiing in two years.
On Sunday, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia, the reigning overall champion of the sport and the woman who has beaten Shiffrin in two of the first three races of the season, took the lead from Shiffrin at the halfway point of a race for the second time this season. However, in a thrilling comeback in the first women’s World Cup ski race held on American soil this season, Shiffrin, who was just an hour’s drive from her boyhood home in New Hampshire, fought back to win by a dominating 75 hundredths of a second in the last run.
Nonetheless, the World Cup’s visit to the Killington ski resort also served to highlight the intensifying nature of the Shiffrin-Vlhova rivalry, as evidenced by the large number of fans in attendance, many of whom waved Slovakian flags and banners, who were clearly focused on the fact that they were watching a head-to-head competition. On Friday, during an interview from her Killington accommodation, Shiffrin said that she had expected this outcome, stating that her friends and family had been embroiled in the controversy.
When asked whether she was aware of the attention being drawn to her by her clashes with Shiffrin after Sunday’s race, Vlhova, who is also 26 but three months younger than Shiffrin, nodded in agreement after the race.
Despite the fact that they are the same age, the two racers have not always been close competitors. Shiffrin began participating on the World Cup circuit when she was 15 years old, and she won her first race on the circuit the following year. As of this year, she has 71 World Cup victories, a tally that is only exceeded by Lindsey Vonn (82 wins) and Annika Stenmark (86 triumphs). Shiffrin has won three Olympic medals, including two gold medals, throughout her professional career. Vlhova won the first of her 22 World Cup races in 2015, although she has yet to win an Olympic gold in her professional career.
However, in the previous two seasons, Vlhova has eight World Cup titles to Shiffrin’s five, putting her in a commanding position. Following the death of her father Jeff in a car accident at the family’s Colorado home on February 2, 2020, Shiffrin was forced to miss many months of the World Cup season in 2020. The pandemic disrupted or cancelled much of Shiffrin’s off-season training later in 2020, but she returned to racing and maintained her position among the World Cup elite, albeit she did not dominate as fully as she had in the past. During the 2018-19 season, for example, she was victorious an incredible 17 times.
She also warned that the World Cup competition was stacked with many experienced and fast skiers, but she said that when Vlhova was performing at her peak, “there’s not a whole lot I can do that’s better than what she’s doing.” Shiffrin was asked to characterise her connection with Vlhova on Friday.
In the aftermath of their four tight races this year, Shiffrin and Vlhova have been plainly amicable, as seen by their hugging, chatting, and congratulating each other. Their prerace course inspection took place side by side, with a distance of no more than six feet between them, before to Sunday’s event.
During the first run on Sunday, Shiffrin fell two-tenths of a second behind Vlhova, who went on to win the race. Skiing second-to-last in the second run, Shiffrin made a significant mistake near the top and nearly skied off course, but she quickly corrected herself and increased her speed after that, charging through the final 40 gates to not only make up the deficit she had suffered in the first run against Vlhova, but also to take a significant lead.
After around ten gates of skiing, Vlhova slipped as her ski tips came close to crossing the track. She made a good comeback, but she lost vital momentum and looked to lose her rhythm throughout the remainder of the competition. In other words, as she admitted subsequently, “I’m not sure what occurred.” I lost my balance on both skis and came dangerously close to falling off. “I attempted to push as hard as I possibly could.”
It was impossible to compete in the races last year because of the epidemic. Wind gusts and heavy snowfall forced the cancellation of a giant slalom race planned for Saturday at the resort.
In the World Cup overall standings, Shiffrin holds a slim 20-point lead over Vlhova, who she overtook late Sunday afternoon. “I’m taking a lot of momentum from today and I feel like I’m building on something now,” Shiffrin said late Sunday afternoon. “When I look at this season in comparison to previous season, I see a significant increase in energy. I made a mistake on the second run, but I recovered and finished the race. It’s a positive indicator in my opinion.”