Alpine Young Guns: Petra Vlhova
By Michael Mastarciyan
Ever since she was a little girl, Petra Vlhova has always had one dream – winning Olympic gold.
It's a dream many young ski racers have, but unfortunately for most, it's a dream that never comes true.
Last January, during the first ever Youth Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Petra, then 16, had a shot at making her dream a reality.
Her first try, in super-G, was unsuccessful - but a respectable 9th place was enough to work away any performance-related jitters she had coming into this, the biggest ski racing event of her you racing career so far. Her second and third attempts, in super combined and GS - identical fourth place finishes - consistent, impressive, but unfortunately not gold medal worthy. With just one race left, slalom, Vlhova knew she had one last chance to make history as the first woman to win gold in the event at the inaugural Youth Olympic Winter Games.
After a blistering first run that landed her in first place more than a second faster than her nearest competitor, Vlhova knew her gold medal dream was within reach. Not long after, another fantastic run, and Vlhova's dream became reality - a first place finish and an unforgettable moment of glory on the Olympic victory podium, with a gold medal around her neck and the flag of Slovakia rising to the skies with her country's national anthem playing in the background.
But Vlhova's success on the world stage wouldn't end here. Six weeks later, at the FIS Junior World Ski Championships in Roccaraso, Italy, Vlhova would step onto the podium again in slalom, this time taking a bronze.
Now 17, and with the knowledge that she's got what it takes to win against the world's best in her age group, Vlhova is focused on making the transition into World Cup.
We caught up with her recently for a little talk about her recent successes, her future in racing, and to find out what makes her tick when she's not on snow...
MM: Petra, you said on your website that a gold medal in Innsbruck was a big goal before the Youth Olympic Games in January – have you always dreamed about winning at The Olympics?
PV: Yes, I’m always dreaming about that, and I’ll continue dreaming because my main aim is to win a medal at the real Olympic Games.
MM: Were you nervous going into the slalom, given it was your last chance at winning gold in Innsbruck?
PV: I was a bit disappointed coming so close to winning medals in the events leading up to the slalom, but I knew slalom is my best event, the event I feel most comfortable in. So I was okay, didn’t feel too nervous, and I didn’t think about the medal.
MM: Were you nervous going into the 2nd run knowing your chances at winning gold in slalom were now very reachable?
PV: Before the first run I simply concentrated on getting in a good, clean run without mistakes, and it worked because I got one finishing in first. But the time before the second run was more difficult. I felt a lot of pressure. I knew a lot of athletes from the Slovak team were in the finish area to support me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Fortunately I have a really good coach who told me exactly what I had to do to win. When I saw the other girls ahead of me making mistakes I calmed down, and realized that I still had an advantage, and this gave me the assurance and confidence I needed to ski well.
MM: What did it feel like to stand on the podium with a gold medal around your neck?
PV: My first impression was, “Oh, this gold medal is pretty heavy!” It was an absolutely incredible feeling to stand on the highest platform of the podium, and to realize that I was the best. When they started to play my national anthem I had tears in my eyes.
MM: What was the celebration like afterward? Did you have family there watching your victory?
PV: I didn’t really have a special celebration, other than the “wiener schnitzel mit pommes” (which I usually can’t eat) that my coach promised to buy me if I won. So after this substantial dinner I went back to my room and slept. My parents weren’t in Innsbruck, and on the day of the slalom race they were skiing, and my Dad had his mobile phone turned off because he was so nervous. I spoke to them on the phone after the race and they congratulated me and told me they were really proud of me.
MM: Did winning gold in Innsbruck change anything for you? Maybe give you more confidence?
PV: Honestly, yes, it gives me more confidence. This gold shows me that hard work produces sweet fruit. People in the ski world have started to notice me too, and my sponsors have also been very encouraging, and that’s always a great feeling.
MM: Now that you have an Olympic gold medal from the Youth Olympics....are you dreaming of Olympic gold in Sochi or beyond?
PV: I’m absolutely dreaming of other Olympic medals and I am working on it! I don’t have the courage to declare that it will be in Sochi because I don’t feel ready enough yet. There are a lot of things I need to get better at, and many mistakes I need to eliminate too.
MM: You were also successful at Junior Worlds in Italy winning a slalom bronze there, how was that?
PV: I was satisfied with bronze, but on the other hand I also realized that I could have done more. My performance in Italy was far from ideal. I made a lot of mistakes mostly in the first run, but the weather and snow conditions weren’t very good and that didn’t help either.
MM: Is slalom your favorite event? If yes, why?
PV: You’re right, slalom is my favorite event, but I also like the other events. Why slalom my favorite? Maybe because Slovakia has some of the best conditions for slalom training in the world. It’s very difficult for me to explain why I love slalom so much other than its really enjoyable and fun for me.
MM: You seem to be comfortable in speed also, do you like going fast on skis?
PV: Yes I feel comfortable, and yes I like going fast. Unfortunately I don’t have many opportunities for speed training.
MM: You had two slalom top-5's in European Cup last season and you won your country's national slalom title this year, where will you do most of your racing next year, European Cup, World Cup, a mix?
PV: Our aim for last season was to try European Cup and settle down in it. These expectations I managed to meet. Next season I’ll race in European Cup mostly, but I’ll also be skiing in some World Cup races – how many will depend on what my coach decides.
MM: What's the most important thing you've learned so far in your racing career?
PV: To work hard, not to give up, and to be a good teammate.
MM: Did you have a favorite ski racer growing up?
PV: When I was younger my favorite racer was Janica Kostelic, and before every competition my Mum would put my hair in double braids. Nowadays, I don’t really have a favorite racer.
MM: I've heard you like motorcycles is this correct?
PV: Yes, it is. I adore motorcycles, and I ride every chance I get! My Brother Boris is into motocross and he’s always been my inspiration to ride motorcycles.
MM: What else do you enjoy doing when you're not racing?
PV: Outside of motorcycles, when I have free time, I just do whatever. Sometimes I watch TV, surf on the internet, go out with friends, walk my dog Kuli – and on Saturdays I’m home with my Mum doing the cleaning.
MM: Has anyone ever told you, you look like Pippi Longstocking (Pipi Dlhá Pančucha in Slovak) when you do your hair up in double braids?
PV: No one! I wore my hair in braids when I was a little girl because Janica Kostelic was like a god to me. But nowadays, my hair isn’t long enough for this hairstyle and I only have enough for one braid.
MM: If you could ride up a chairlift with any person living or dead, real or fictional who would it be and why?
PV: Michael Phelps, but with one condition - he would have to be bare from the waist up (she says with a big smile).
MM: I’ve heard you love to travel, if you could visit any place in the world where would it be?
PV: The Maldives.
MM: Have you had any vacation time this summer? Do anything fun or exciting on holiday?
PV: I was in Croatia with my parents. My holiday was about rest and relaxation, so I swam in the sea and experienced doing nothing. But I did have one exciting experience earlier this year when we were driving home from skiing in Italy - we made a stop at the Benni Raich Bridge and went bungee jumping.
MM: How is off-season training coming along?
PV: I’ve been running a lot, riding bikes, strength training at the gym, and will be doing some on-snow training in Italy and Austria.
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