KILLINGTON, Vt. – Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. Arnold Palmer had Jack Nicklaus. Mikaela Shiffrin has Petra Vlhova.
When an athlete has a peer it can battle and compare itself to, it brings out the best in both. That is exactly what the American Shiffrin and the Slovakian Vlhova do for each other in women’s Alpine skiing.
They are the top of their sport and in a tier that others struggle to touch. Their excellence was on full display on Sunday’s FIS World Cup slalom race in the fifth annual HomeLight Killington Cup at Killington Mountain.
The pair filled the top two spots on the podium as they have done many times before. It was Shiffrin who came out with her fifth straight slalom win at Killington with a combined time of 1:38.33 and Vlhova finishing second 0.75 seconds behind Shiffrin.
The two embraced after they had finished their second runs. Emotions were certainly different for both. Shiffrin had just put down a second run good enough to win and Vlhova had just made one mistake on her run that cost her the victory.
Results aside, the two have respect for their fellow elite skier.
“We’ve just been pushing each other for so long. I’ve always said it that it doesn’t make it easy. It’s definitely a fight every race,” said Shiffrin of the challenge of going up against her rival.
“You have this feeling where your heart is beating out of your chest because you don’t know what is going to happen. For everyone on the mountain, we want to win so much. You don’t know if it’s going to happen with competitor like Petra, who rarely makes mistakes.”
There isn’t much that separates Shiffrin and Vlhova on the slopes. Last weekend in Levi, Finland, it was Vlhova pulling out two slalom wins with Shiffrin second in both. This week, it flipped. Such has been their rivalry, a give and take for winning results.
“It’s challenging, but it’s also really satisfying when you have a race like today,” Shiffrin said. “She felt it in Levi (Finland) and I felt it today. The other athletes aren’t far behind either.”
Sunday’s 46th slalom win was historic for Shiffrin as the two-time Olympic champion tied a 32-year-old World Cup record for most World Cup wins in a single discipline set by Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark in giant slalom.
Shiffrin will have plenty of chances to grab sole possession of that World Cup record and also add on to her Olympic legacy in the coming months.
Home sweet home
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and the seven U.S. Alpine skiers that competed in Sunday’s race know that to be true.
The Killington Cup had been a great success in its first four years, but last year’s event was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year’s event was scaled back in attendance due to Covid protocols, but both days were sellouts of 10,000 people packing around the Superstar Trail.
“This is a really special race for a lot of reasons,” Shiffrin said. “Because of the atmosphere and because so much of family can be here. I’ve spent so much time on the East Coast and it feels like home. Last year we didn’t get to come here. We missed it. We missed it a lot.”
Shiffrin is a Burke Mountain Academy product as are two of her teammates in Sunday’s race, Nina O’Brien and Zoe Zimmerman.
There’s a special feeling when they get to compete on the snow in Vermont.
“I love Killington. It’s where I started my first World Cup and got my first World Cup points,” O’Brien said. “It’s definitely special to me. I spent four years in Vermont, so I feel comfortable here.”
O’Brien remembers her first time skiing Killington being a Vermont states race as an under-18 skier.
Paula Moltzan was a National Champion while skiing for the University of Vermont. She finished seventh in Sunday’s race.
Moltzan cherishes any chance she gets to compete in the Green Mountain State.
“I love coming back to Killington every year,” Moltzan said. “The crowd is awesome and I feel like I have a slight hometown advantage.”
“The whole morning we see everyone cheering for us and feel a lot of support. We want to put on a good show for (the fans),” O’Brien said.
Given the amount of Vermont connections on the team, this race always has the Americans abuzz.
“We take pride in relating to New England. We were talking about on the trails this morning,” Moltzan said. “Even though for some it might not be their home home, it feels like home.”
Moltzan jumped the railing to give some special supporters a hug after Sunday’s race. She was home.
The next generation
Shiffrin and Vlhova may be at the top of the podium more often than not, but there are plenty of skiers on the rise looking to make their mark.
Sweden’s Hanna Aronsson Elfman, an 18-year-old, was the lone skier born in the 2000s to make the 30-skier final run. For a portion of the second run, Aronsson Elfman was the woman to beat holding the top spot.
She ended up finishing 15th when it was all set and done, but she made a statement that she’s on the rise.
Sunday’s race wasn’t what O’Brien was looking for, as she didn’t qualify for the finals, but the 23-year-old is one to watch in the coming years.
“There are a lot of good girls and we have a good team, so hopefully we’ll have a few good stars,” O’Brien said.
There were young skiers out in droves for Sunday’s event and certainly many want to be at the top of the Superstar Trail competing one day.
O’Brien once was one of those girls with a dream while at Burke.
“You never know how close you can be to the World Cup,” O’Brien said. “I certainly didn’t think that I would be there when I was their age. I would tell (young skiers) to keep going and have fun with it because they can definitely make it here.”
Written by Adam Aucoin, Rutland Herald