There’s just something about snow and ice.
There’s something about the frost, and the juxtaposition of tiny specks flying around against the backdrop of snow. There’s something magical about it, mesmeric.
And if you turn on your TV, laptop, tablet or phone at 10:15 Beijing time on Wednesday, February 9 you will see in turn two of the quickest specks around.
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Because that is the day of the women’s Slalom, without a doubt the blockbuster event of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic games.
The reason it is such an event is twofold.
Firstly you have the legendary American skier Mikaela Shiffrin. Widely regarded as one of the greatest to ever put on skis, Shiffrin is on a trajectory to go down in history as the very best. We’ve waxed lyrical about Shiffrin before but it’s worth reiterating some of the achievements on her CV.
There's 73 World Cup Alpine Skiing wins, the third highest ever. There's 47 Slalom wins, the most of any skier in a single discipline. Shiffrin is a three-time Overall World Cup champion, the third-highest total amongst women and eighth of all skiers. Six-time Slalom champion, no women has more. The youngest Slalom Olympic gold medal winner in history and an 11-time medal winner at the World Championships, the most of any American and joint-second on the women’s standing.
And again, she will only turn 27 in March. Shiffrin’s career path is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, even Lindsey Vonn and Ingemar Stenmark will be left in her wake when she finally calls it a day.
Shiffrin is a machine, especially in Slalom, where she has taken the standards required to win to a whole new level. In the past 18 months the American’s fortitude has been severely tested after the passing of her father Jeff as well as a back injury that hampered her training and racing. But Shiffrin’s resiliency has shone through the darkness and in the last Slalom race before Beijing, at Schladming, she looked as good as she has ever done.

Shiffrin storms to record-breaking 47th slalom victory

All that might lead you to believe that this is a forgone conclusion, that Shiffrin’s rivals may as well not bother turn up. You can get freak occurrences in skiing (hello Ester Ledecka!) but surely Shiffrin is too much?
You’d be very, very wrong.
Because from the tiny town of Liptovsky Mikulas in Slovakia there has come the immovable object that can live with Shiffrin’s unstoppable force.
Over the past years Petra Vlhova has grown from plucky underdog, to best of the rest and now a bonafide rival to Shiffrin. She is absolutely the American’s equal. Last season Vlhova took the overall title, this year she tops the Slalom standings coming into the games.

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In the last three seasons (including this one) Vlhova has won 12 Slalom races to Shiffrin’s seven. That’s not supposed to be happening. But it is and that makes the Beijing battle so fascinating. (For reference in the same time span there were three Slalom winners not called Vlhova or Shiffrin, one for Michelle Gisin and two for Katherine Liensberger).
Even though she is the defending Overall champion, Vlhova actually looks better this season, if that is even possible. She has been energised by her new coach Mauro Pini, who previously worked with the likes of Lara Gut-Behrami and Tina Maze, after leaving Livio Magoni. Whilst never confirmed, it’s believed that the relationship between Italian Magoni and Vlhova broke down after he called the Slovakian “an iron” in comparison to the “diamonds” within the Italian set-up like Marta Bassino, Sofia Goggia and Federica Brignone amongst other boorish comments.
The change has been good for Vlhova though. Her legendary work rate seems to have gone up a notch and her focus this season has been laser-sharp. Errors? You wouldn’t need more than one hand to count them.
And that’s what you need to beat Shiffrin. Nothing less than 99.9 per cent is good enough. Because even if you are at 99.9 per cent she may get to 100 per cent and that will be enough. If you slip even an inch Shiffrin has the tools in her armoury to pounce.

Vlhova claims stunning World Cup victory over Shiffrin in Levi - watch the top 3 runs

Shiffrin knows it works both ways too. Ahead of her home race in Killington in November Shiffrin was asked about the competition between them. Whilst the American was traditionally diplomatic in her response she did admit that when Vlhova is at her best “there’s not a whole lot I can do that’s better than what she’s doing.”
But Shiffrin did add: “And when I ski my best, there’s not a whole lot that she or anyone else could that is really better either. But it’s all at a very high level, and it makes it more nerve-wracking.”
Which brings us nicely to the personal dynamic between the two, because that in of itself is really rather fascinating. It’s definitely not the animosity of Harding-Kerrigan. But it’s also not really seemingly quite the palliness of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The respectful coolness of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps closest, but even then that doesn’t quite feel right.
There seems to be general affection, or at least something that could well have the potential for friendship. By Shiffrin’s own admission she thinks her and Vlhova could be friends in a different life, but it is tricky when you are competing with that person every time you race. There are genuinely warm congratulatory hugs after races, plenty of talking on race weekends and they have been seen do reconnaissance of courses together. Skiing is an individualist sport and as such can be lonely, not every skier has compatriots on the tour so making friends in any capacity is beneficial to all parties.

‘A masterclass!’ - Shiffrin cruises to stunning giant slalom win in Courchevel

It also helps that there is such obvious respect between the two. Shiffrin has always been the golden girl of skiing but you can hear in her voice the admiration for what Vlhova has been able to do in the past few years. Likewise Vlhova is always extremely complimentary of the American. Of course it’s not surprising, being the professionals they are, that they both are extremely quick to make it clear there are dozens of skiers to talk about, not just them.
The problem is that in this era of extremes, hate and vitriol, it is so refreshing to see a rivalry based on respect rather than sniping. It’s competitive, fair and enthralling.
So unfortunately for them as long as they keep skiing like this they are all we’re going to talk about and we can’t wait to watch them battle it out. Roll on February 9.
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Watch every moment of Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on discovery+
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