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Parkour, stubbornness and being a veteran at 20: the wild rise of Zrinka Ljutic

Apr 01, 2024·Alpine Skiing
Ljutic thinks deeply about how to ski better, and it paid off in 2023-24 (Agence Zoom)
Ljutic thinks deeply about how to ski better, and it paid off in 2023-24 (Agence Zoom)

It’s easy to forget that Zrinka Ljutic is still just 20: she has been familiar to ski fans since making her FIS World Cup debut in 2020 aged just 16.

If last season saw her first breakthrough moment – she bagged a first podium, a third place in the slalom at Spindleruv Mlyn – this term has been true confirmation of her huge talent.

The Croatian clocked three second places on tour, in Jasna, Solden and Are, all in the slalom. Everything seemed to click. What does she put it down to?

“I felt I was missing something last season, and I worked on my technique and my dry land training,” she said. “I tried parkour, that gave me flow, and made me more dynamic and harmonic."

'After Jasna, there was a turning point'

“I tried new things that made me look deeper. I had a big talk with my dad, too. We were struggling with communication. It’s not always easy to have father as coach, but it worked. I got three second places, and a fourth in GS.

“After Jasna, there was a turning point. I was mentally struggling before that. I’d had four DNFs in slalom. It took a toll. Some were bad luck, some were straddles. They weren’t the same DNF mistakes as last season. I thought I was more consistent, and it was hard to take.

 “But then I got second, got full of confidence and knew what was missing. I looked forward to races. I didn’t worry about podiums, I just wanted to put in the work. I found satisfaction and it gave me the biggest reward.

“I had the same in Andorra. There, I was hoping to win, but I made small mistakes in second run. Then in Are, the same recipe."

Ljutic used to visualise competing against Shiffrin. Now they share podiums (Agence Zoom)
Now I am fighting for a win with Mikaela Shiffrin. It’s so rewarding, it’s even better than the outcome. To battle those skiers makes me the most satisfied.

Since being identified as a ski phenomenon, the pressure has been on Ljutic. She now feels she perhaps piled too much, too young, on herself.

 “I started early in the World Cup, at 16 – I think it was too early, honestly,” she said. “I was ambitious and driven. I wanted to prove myself. Maybe I should have had more normal development. I didn’t get anything from so many starts. When some things clicked, I scored points. But I wasn’t there yet.”

That 2023 podium, however, was confirmation she was doing the right thing. “It was very important. I was skiing good, but I was trying to put two runs together. I had some good results, but I DNF’d a lot.

“So that was a dream come true. I was afraid to hope for it. But it happened and gave me a huge motivation boost. I expected another podium, but it was hard, some steps were not there yet. There are no shortcuts.”

Learning how to prepare right has been vital in 2023-24. “You need to be fit mentally, to ski well in trainings,” said Ljutic. “It takes experience and teamwork on race day. You need to be realistic on the day. How do I feel? What are my strengths? What is the slope like? What does it require to get to the podium that day?

“It’s lots of different and little steps to win or podium. From how you sleep that week, to waking up, to inspection, to warm up. It’s got a lot easier since I’ve had more repetition.

“Now I feel more grown up, more calm, better technically, and more mentally fit to fight for a podium again, and be able to repeat it.”

Skiing against the best – including the very best, in Mikaela Shiffrin – is a fantasy realised for the Croatian. “When I was younger, I’d imagine I was at the start of a World Cup, with Mikaela or Petra Vlhova going ahead or behind me, and I’d think I was fighting for the top spots with them,” said Ljutic.

“I’d always visualise that. I get flashbacks to it now. Like in Are, when I was running first, it felt like a flashback. Now I am fighting for a win with Mikaela Shiffrin. It’s so rewarding, it’s even better than the outcome. To battle those skiers makes me the most satisfied.”

Ljutic has targeted improvement in GS (Agence Zoom)
I am inspired by the consistency of great skiers. Odermatt, Mikaela, Petra

Ljutic may have had her best results in slalom, but she has also jumped into the top ten in GS. “I stepped up the game a lot,” she said. “I started in 50 or something, so it feels great to finish at 10. 

“GS was my better discipline as a junior. I thought GS would be the thing I’d score more points in the World Cup, but it wasn’t like that. It was a big difference coming from the Europa Cup.

“I realised a lot of it was trusting yourself. I felt like I had to do more, and it plagued me. Last year, I got through some of those barriers. I was patient, I didn’t try to force anything. Then I just went for it. It was a lot in my head, GS.

“It’s nice to see two types of progress. In slalom I was going for it. In GS, it took longer. But I think I can start getting GS podiums. Anything can happen.

“There are some things I need to find, condition wise. I won’t try to force it, because I can’t. But I like GS, because it’s the mother of all disciplines. It’s so rewarding when you carve a turn properly. The angles, the forces – it’s more technical than slalom and you can use the physics. If I could pick just one, it would be GS.”

Her key strengths as an athlete? “I have some good qualities that exclude me from others – mostly I am stubborn. Even after bad outcomes, I still trust in me and send it one more time.

“I DNF, but then Jasna happens. I’m determined. I can recover quickly when I do a mistake. It is a crucial part of development to make mistakes, especially if you have a strong will and want to be fast. When you learn to control and eliminate things, good things will happen.”

Top of the list of good things she’s aiming for? “My dream is to win a crystal globe,” she said. “I am inspired by the consistency of great skiers. Odermatt, Mikaela, Petra. How they can perform on such a high level every race. I want to be there. I don’t want flashes where I podium, then disappear. I want to be a constant skier.

“I want to make each day count. To engage in those little steps, every run, that’s going to get me there eventually.”