Petra Vlhova roared from behind to win the Olympic women’s slalom by 0.08sec on Wednesday only hours after Mikaela Shiffrin’s bid for a history-making medal haul in Beijing was left in tatters when the American star was disqualified from a second straight race.
Vlhova, a six-time world champion medallist who had never previously made an Olympic podium, was 0.72sec back in eighth after the first run. But the 26-year-old surged into gold-medal position after a masterful second descent down the steep technical course known as the Ice River with a combined time of 1min 44.98sec, then watched tensely from the finish area as the seven rivals who clocked faster morning times took their best shots.
One by one they came up short until Vlhova raised both fists and pumped them toward the sky before embracing her team, having won Slovakia’s first medal in alpine skiing by less than one-tenth of a second over Austria’s Katharina Liensberger, the reigning world slalom champion, who settled for silver. Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener was 0.12sec off the pace, adding a bronze to her Olympic slalom silver from Pyeongchang four years ago.
“Honestly, it was really difficult to be calm and focused on my skiing,” said Vlhova, whose gold medal is Slovakia’s first at a Winter Games not in biathlon or snowboarding. “But I had a lot of power from my team. They trusted me, they believed in me and they repeated to me: ‘You are so strong, just ski free, enjoy and focus on your skiing, nothing else’. They were always repeating this to me in between the two runs. I gave everything I had and at the end I am Olympic champion.”
One of the most anticipated events on the alpine skiing programme had been framed as a showdown between Vlhova and Shiffrin, whose neck-and-neck race atop the overall World Cup standings has held the sport in its thrall all year. They have combined to win every slalom on this season’s schedule with one-two finishes in all but two of them.
But Shiffrin’s day was over practically before it started. Seventh out of the starting gate for her first run, the American was forced off line and nearly fell after one of her skis kicked out too wide on a turn around the fourth gate.
The two-time Olympic champion then sat in the snow alongside the netting on the side of the hill with her head bowed in disbelief for more than 10 minutes as her rivals continued their first attempts down the course, which on Wednesday was set by Shiffrin’s long-time personal coach, Mike Day.
The extraordinary result came two days after Shiffrin skied out during her first run of the giant slalom, which ended her Olympic title defence only seconds into her Beijing debut. The 26-year-old had failed to finish a race only twice in four years entering the Games and 13 times in a total of 228 starts across all disciplines at World Cup, Olympic and world championship events. Her last consecutive DNFs in technical races? Back in December 2011, when she was 16.
“Pretty awful,” a tearful Shiffrin said afterward in the mixed zone. “But I won’t feel awful forever. I just feel pretty low right now.” She added: “I was pushing out of the start. I had full intentions of skiing as hard as I could. I slipped up a little bit on one turn and I just didn’t give myself room to make any kind of error like that. I was planning to go on the most aggressive line, the most challenging line to ski. But I also know it’s the fastest.”
Germany’s Lena Dürr was unable to hold on to her 0.03sec lead after the first run and came in fourth, bursting into tears in the finish area after realising she missed her first medal at any major championship by an agonising 0.07sec.
Mikaela Shiffrin is consoled by a USA team member after she skied out in the first run of the women’s slalom. Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP
Sara Hector of Sweden, who won gold in Monday’s giant slalom and was third-fastest after Wednesday’s first run, went for broke on her second trip and appeared on course to become the fourth woman to complete the Olympic technical double only to straddle a gate near the bottom of the course on the south side of Xiaohaituo Mountain.
Shiffrin, whose three Olympic medals include gold in slalom in 2014 and in giant slalom in 2018, said her plan is to race all five individual events in Beijing. Her next chance to make history as the first US alpine skier to win three Olympic golds will come on Friday in the super-G, the speed race which she has never entered in two previous Winter Games but did win at the 2019 world championships. She will also have medal chances in Tuesday’s downhill and on Thursday week in the alpine combined, where she took silver in 2018.
Since becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion in history in 2014, Shiffrin has dominated the sport’s most technical discipline like no one before. She’s won more World Cup slalom races than any male or female skier (47), including four world championships and six World Cup discipline titles, which are awarded for sustained excellence over the course of an entire season.
But over time the Colorado native has blossomed from a specialist into the world’s best all-around skier, branching out into the speed events with success and becoming the only person, man or woman, to win World Cup races in all six disciplines. Her 73 career wins on alpine skiing’s top circuit are third-most on the all-time leaderboard, trailing only Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark (86) and longtime US teammate Lindsey Vonn (82).
Shiffrin’s failure to finish either of her races so far was the latest sour note in what has been a bleak Beijing Olympics so far for Team USA. The Americans’ longest-ever wait for their first gold at a Winter Games – which stretched past more than 30 events and finally ended with Lindsey Jacobellis’s surprise win in snowboard cross later on Wednesday – included several of their hottest medal contenders missing the podium entirely, among them defending Olympic champion Red Gerard (men’s snowboard slopestyle) and speed skaters Brittany Bowe (women’s 1500m) and Joey Mantia (men’s 1500m).