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The rivalry between Mikaela Shiffrin and Slovakian Petra Vlhova was back in action on Tuesday night in Zagreb, Croatia, with Shiffrin returning to the World Cup after testing positive for COVID-19 over the holidays. But it was Vlhova who took home the first victory of 2022 as well as the venue’s storied Snow Queen Trophy, with Shiffrin finishing in second. Paula Moltzan was the next-best American athlete, finishing in 11th.
The Zagreb hill looked something like Vermont in April, with leaves strewn across the Crveni Spust track and barely enough snow for the course crew to screw in the gates. The workers attempted to firm up the snow with salt, but the snow turned to sugar in the 45-degree weather and it didn’t take long for major holes and ruts to form throughout the course. It was a rough ride for many of the women, with the soft snow promoting mistakes and wind whipping the leaves around, and 24 women DNFed between the two runs.
“We’re always trying to prepare for hard snow,” said Shiffrin. “If it’s really windy, we’re thinking maybe we don’t ski in the wind and we ski when there are better conditions. I don’t think anybody was expecting to prepare for the conditions today.”
But the tricky snow didn’t seem to bother Vlhova and Shiffrin, who were in a league of their own under the lights in Zagreb. Vlhova won the first run by .64 seconds after making virtually no errors. While Shiffrin threw down a blazing second run to make up time, Vlhova proved unstoppable and powered through the last 15 gates of the second run to take the victory by half-a-second over Shiffrin. The two women were far ahead of third place, with Katharina Liensberger of Austria rounding out the podium, 2.11 seconds behind Vlhova, after making a critical mistake on her final run.
“It was really tough because conditions were not so perfect,” said Vlhova, who won her third-straight Snow Queen Trophy and has now won 11 of the last 17 World Cup slalom races. “Also, Zagreb is really long, so when you are entering the last pitch, you start to feel your legs, so you have to, like, breathe again and restart again.”
Watch: Shiffrin vs. Vlhova in 2022 Zagreb World Cup Slalom
Aside from the podium finishers, Canadian Ali Nullmeyer was the story of the day. The graduate of Vermont’s Green Mountain Valley School and current NCAA athlete at Middlebury College came into the second run in 17th place and threw down the fastest second run of the day to finish in fifth. It was her best career result. Wendy Holdener of Switzerland was fourth.
Rounding out the Americans in Croatia, Moltzan had a rough ride on the soft snow and a fractured wrist she sustained just prior to Courchevel. But with her pole taped to her wrist, she still skied into 11th place, her best finish at the venue. Katie Hensien just missed the flip, finishing 31st in her first run and therefore not qualifying for a second run. Lila Lapanja, Zoe Zimmerman, and Nicola Rountree-Williams (DNF) also did not qualify for a second run.
It was Shiffrin’s first race back on the World Cup circuit after announcing her COVID-positive status on December 27, which caused her to miss a slalom and giant slalom race in Lienz, Austria. While she experienced only mild symptoms, she was forced to quarantine, which meant no training or race preparation. But after a negative test, she was ready to ski again on the course where she has won four times in the past.
“I knew it was going to be tough today after 10 days in a room and not being able to do any kind of physical exercise,” she said. “I lost some of my energy to push, but today showed me I didn’t lose too much. It’s something I can get back and I’ll do my best to get that back over the next weeks. It was quite a positive day.”
Vlhova’s first and second place finishes in Lienz while Shiffrin was quarantining gave her a strong lead in the overall World Cup slalom standings. She has won four of the five slaloms throughout the 2021-22 season and with just four slalom races left on the Tour, leads the standings by 140 points over Shiffrin. It’s not an unheard-of deficit to overcome, but would likely require Vlhova to DNF or sit out races in order for Shiffrin to take the globe.
“I am not in the competition for the globe anymore,” admitted Shiffrin, who has won the overall slalom title four times between 2013 and 2019. “There’s just too many things that have happened so far this year, so I’m just trying to push every single run.”
However, Shiffrin remains in first for the overall World Cup title, with Vlhova deciding to focus solely on tech events during this Olympic season and Sofia Goggia of Italy, the next biggest competitor for the overall title, skiing primarily speed events with a few giant slaloms sprinkled in. Shiffrin currently leads by 115 points over Vlhova, who moved into second place over Goggia thanks to her win in Zagreb, a race Goggia did not start in.
There are 20 World Cup races left in this season, with the edge barely going to the speed skiers—11 speed events to nine tech events—so it will be a fierce battle to the World Cup Finals in Courchevel/Meribel, France to see who can secure the overall crystal globe.
But with the Omicron variant sidelining athletes left and right, it’s still anyone’s game. Lara Gut-Behrami of Switzerland is still missing in action after testing positive in mid-December, and at least seven racers, including three Swiss athletes, had to sit out Zagreb after testing positive for COVID. With teams cracking down on health and safety precautions to limit positive cases given the quickly approaching Olympics in Beijing, the globe races could still be up in the air.
Next, the women head to Kranjska Gora, Slovenia on January 8 and 9 for a giant slalom and slalom, after the races were moved from Maribor, Slovenia due to lack of snow.