Race officials arranged for Mikaela Shiffrin to train with Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova before the season-opening World Cup slalom in Levi, Finland.
Shiffrin was the reigning Olympic and world champion in the discipline, but Vlhova had beaten Shiffrin in the final slalom of the previous season in Shiffrin’s home state of Colorado.
“I could feel the tension on the hill,” Shiffrin said.
Sure enough, the slalom rivals treated the training sessions like competitions.
Some runs, Shiffrin was faster. Others, Vlhova clocked better times.
“I was almost like a deer in the headlights,” Shiffrin said. “I hadn’t really felt one particular person who was really pushing me that hard like she was in those training sessions.”
When they finished, Shiffrin admits that she was “fuming” because “I hate training with anybody who’s even close to me.”
But the tension disappeared when Vlhova put her hand on Shiffrin’s shoulder and thanked her for the training opportunity.
“It’s like competing against Roger Federer,” Shiffrin said, referring to the Swiss tennis star. “You want to hate him, but you can’t.”
Shiffrin finished second to Vlhova in the Levi race. It was the first time that Shiffrin had lost consecutive World Cup slaloms since Dec. 2014.
Shiffrin got her revenge at the next slalom in Killington, Vt.
“They are having a tough fight,” said Austria’s Bernadette Schild, who finished third to Shiffrin and Vlhova in in Killington. “I’m just trying to keep up with them.”
Vlhova, who is three months younger than the 22-year-old Shiffrin, often watches video of her U.S. rival and admires her consistency.
“Every race she goes like this,” Vlhova said, moving her arm horizontally when talking about Shiffrin and up-and-down when speaking about her own skiing. “This is maybe what I have to learn from Mikaela, that she goes like this and she’s always on top.”
Shiffrin believes she is going to have a “really cool rivalry” with Vlhova during this Olympic season.
“I see something different in her that makes me want to be better, if that makes sense,” Shiffrin said. “Not just to win races, but also to hold myself to a higher level of skiing.”