Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova is a ‘very strong rival’ for Mikaela Shiffrin

Andrew Dampf
The Associated Press
Petra Vlhova speeds down the course during the slalom portion of the women's combined, at the alpine ski World Championships in Are, Sweden, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Gabriele Facciotti)

ARE, Sweden — If Mikaela Shiffrin can be likened to a sleek, technically perfect Formula One car, the Slovakian skier who is developing into her biggest rival is like a rally vehicle — bigger, more physical and rougher around the edges.

Yet when it comes to racing, Petra Vlhova is nearly as fast as Shiffrin.

Vlhova is the only racer to beat Shiffrin in slalom this season and she also won two giant slaloms recently — tying the American for victory with the exact same time in the final GS before the world championships.

“We’ve got to keep learning. We’re fortunate that Petra is strong enough to beat Mikaela every once in a while but we know that we’re not at their level yet,” Livio Magoni, Vlhova’s coach, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Still, it’s apparent that a rivalry is developing between the two 23-year-olds.

“We already knew last year. I think Mikaela knows it, because she’s one of the only girls who is able to beat her more than once,” Magoni said. “I think it’s a nice rivalry because it pushes both teams. We know that if one of them makes a mistake the other one will be ahead.”

While they are yet to race head-to-head at the world championships, both Shiffrin and Vlhova have already won medals.

Shiffrin won gold in the super-G and Vlhova took silver in the Alpine combined, finishing just 0.03 seconds behind gold medalist Wendy Holdener of Switzerland.

While Shiffrin will be the overwhelming favorite in Thursday’s giant slalom and Saturday’s slalom, Vlhova is clearly the top challenger.

“I (beat her) not once but more times so everything is possible,” Vlhova said.

In the overall World Cup standings, Shiffrin has 1,694 points and Vlhova is second with 1,043 points. No other skiers have more than 800 points.

“I do consider her a very strong rival,” Shiffrin said. “Every single race this year that I won she was right there and the only races I didn’t win she was the winner. So I’m finding a lot of motivation just seeing her every race and thinking, ‘She’s going to be putting 100 percent into this and I have to put 100 percent, too.’”

“It’s pushing me. It’s also pushing her and it’s pushing all the other girls,” Shiffrin added. “If I’m even a little bit off or a little bit slower and I’m not pushing all the way then she’s right there and she can take it. That’s tough, it’s nerve-racking, but it’s also really good for the sport.”

Vlhova’s eight World Cup wins have already surpassed the Slovakian record of five that was held by Veronika Velez-Zuzulova.

The victories have placed Vlhova among Slovakia’s most popular female athletes alongside tennis player Dominika Cibulkova, although she still has a long way to go to reach the superstar status of Slovakian cyclist Peter Sagan.

At nearly 6 feet (1.80 meters), Vlhova is significantly taller than Shiffrin and, in giant slalom at least, races on men’s skis that are 191 centimeters long.

Whereas Shiffrin dances through the gates with perfect rhythm, Vlhova relies on her strength to power her way down the hill.

“It helps and it doesn’t help,” Magoni said of Vlhova’s physical attributes. “You’ve also got to control all of that horsepower. It’s like taking a car with 1,000 horsepower onto the street and you’ve got to figure out how to control the car.”

Everyone in Vlhova’s immediate family is tall.

“She’s the smallest,” Magoni said. “Her brother and her parents are huge.”

Vlhova comes from central Slovakia and grew up skiing at the nearby resort of Jasna.

“She’s always in a sweatsuit,” Magoni said when asked about Vlhova’s interests off the slopes. “She’s an athlete. She eats, sleeps and listens to Slovakian radio.”

Magoni, who is Italian, previously coached Tina Maze for four years, concluding with Maze’s record-breaking 2012-13 season when she collected an all-time best 2,414 World Cup points.

During Magoni’s four years with Maze she went from fourth overall to third then second and first.

“Tina was already an established champion when I arrived. With Petra, we’re still building her career,” Magoni said. “Tina was really a natural. Petra is more of a worker.”

Vlhova has a completely private team without assistance from the Slovakian federation.

“She’s my president so the decisions are made very quickly,” Magoni said. “I just talk with her and it’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Also on Vlhova’s team are two assistant coaches, one of whom is also a physiotherapist while the other doubles as a ski technician.

Boris Vlha, Vlhova’s brother, also helps out, even though he knows little about skiing.

“She likes to have a family member with her, someone to talk to,” Magoni said. “So that’s him.”

With three parallel races on the calendar this season, Magoni made a point of training a lot in that discipline over the summer and that paid off when Vlhova beat Shiffrin in the head-to-head final of the city event in Oslo, Norway.

Next season, Vlhova intends to follow Shiffrin into the speed events of downhill and super-G.

“I don’t think there’s any question she can do it,” Magoni said. “But we need to organize ourselves. It won’t be easy with such a small team.”