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Ski racing fans watching Wednesday’s Olympic women’s slalom were forced to buckle up for an emotional rollercoaster. We saw yet another historic moment on the “Ice River” racecourse at the Yanqing alpine venue when Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova secured an Olympic medal—a first for her and her country. In the end, that medal turned out to be gold, but no one imagined it would—or could—with Vlhova sitting in eighth place after the first run.
“Some today might have thought [the win] was impossible because I was eighth, but in sport you have to never give up, fight until the end,” said Vlhova. “And now I’m here. I’ve won the Olympic Games. For me, for my family, for my team, and for my country, this is something really huge and we are really proud. You need to dream big, and then everything is possible.”
In Vlhova’s moment of elation, Mikaela Shiffrin, the winningest slalom skier of all time, was experiencing another round of heartbreak.
For years, Vlhova has been known on the World Cup Tour as Shiffrin’s fierce rival. The dynamic duo can often be spotted on the World Cup podium side by side. Many anticipated Wednesday’s slalom race to be yet another tight showdown between the two 26-year-olds. What no one expected, however, was that once again, Shiffrin would be noticeably absent.
In a devastating déjà-vu of her Olympic giant slalom bid two days before, Shiffrin DNFed in her specialty discipline. After skiing out at the fifth gate, the 2014 Olympic slalom gold medalist could be seen sitting on the side of the course with her head on her knees. She sat there for 25 minutes before skiing down to the finish.
“I was trying to look back and think about the last [few] days and what I’ve been doing with my skiing that would suggest on the fifth gate, I would push myself a little bit too hard and that I wouldn’t be able to stay in the course,” Shiffrin reflected. “My entire career has taught me to trust in my skiing if it’s good skiing. And, that’s all that I have to rely on these race days. When there is pressure and there’s some nerves and the feeling that I want to do well, I just always go back to that fundamental idea that good skiing will be there for me…”
Shiffrin trailed off, struggling to continue.
“It’s not the end of the world and it’s so stupid to care this much, but I feel … I feel that I have to question a lot now.”
Despite the weight of her disappointment and the guilt of letting her team and her American fans down, Shiffrin returned to the finish to watch the second run and cheer on her teammates. Minnesotan Paula Moltzan, who sat in sixth after the first run, ultimately finished eighth.
“If you take a look around, it’s a pretty beautiful day,” Shiffrin said through tears. “And I have three medals… I mean… Those are still back home in my closet. As disappointed as I feel and as much as I’m feeling right now, there’s so much to be optimistic about.”
“It’s a small, small drop in the bucket,” she continued. “And [this] feels like everything, but it’s not.”
Shiffrin was not the only one who had to contend with raw emotions when all was said and done in the women’s race for slalom gold.
After the first run, Vlhova trailed Germany’s Lena Duerr, who posted the fastest first run time, by 0.72 seconds coming into the second run. But fueled by perseverance, strength, and pride for her country, Vlhova went on to post a blazing second run and make a bid for an Olympic podium. Duerr could not keep up, and Vlhova held on to the top time as the last seven women came down the course, finishing ahead of silver medalist Katharina Liensberger of Austria and bronze medalist Wendy Holdener of Sweden.
In the end Duerr, who skied a near-perfect first run and followed that up with a solid second run, not only lost her hold on gold, but on any Olympic medal at all—a realization that came crashing down on her in the finish area.
Even if a win on Wednesday shocked Vlhova—and the world—in the moment, it appropriately reflects Vlhova’s dominance on the slalom World Cup Tour throughout the season. She has already clinched the slalom crystal globe with a total of 10 podiums thus far, five of which have been wins. Her fans are some of the most dedicated in the sport, showing up in droves to support her across the continent of Europe and in North America. To describe her win as “huge” is an understatement.