Feature | Alpine Skiing

Kiwi teen sensation Alice Robinson in hunt for global ski titles

Already a winner of two World Cup giant slaloms, the 18-year-old New Zealander is gearing up for a crystal globe bid and February's World Championships in Cortina.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Giant slalom star Alice Robinson says she will miss facing Mikaela Shiffrin when the new alpine skiing season gets underway at Soelden this weekend.

Double Olympic champion Shiffrin was ruled out of Saturday's opening race with a back injury having not competed since January following to the death of her father and Covid forcing the premature end of last season.

The 18-year-old New Zealander, who beat Shiffrin to claim her first World Cup win at the same venue in Austria 12 months ago, told Olympic Channel's Incoming Call, "I think we're all actually quite missing racing her. It's been a while and we all have a huge amount respect for her because she's a really awesome skier.

"Obviously she's one of the best and if you really want to be the best you want to beat the best. Going back into Soelden, it would have been nice to have all the best girls there so you can actually see what everyone's doing and have a proper race with everyone.

"It's still gonna be a great race. But it's a shame Mikaela's not going to be there."

As well as looking forward to the 2020-21 campaign, Robinson spoke about what it was like to be a 16-year-old going to PyeongChang 2018 with just a week's notice, and how she's helping younger Kiwi skiers take their first steps towards elite competition.

What a difference a year makes

When Robinson spoke to Olympic Channel on the eve of last season, she was still at high school and hoping to build on her first World Cup podium - second place behind Shiffrin - in the final event of the 2018-19 campaign.

A year on, the teenager was able to reflect on how success came quicker than even she had dared dream.

In the opening race of 2019-20, she became New Zealand's first World Cup winner since Claudia Riegler in 1997 despite suffering from bone bruising on her knee.

Robinson recalls, "Soelden was a bit of a surprise because I actually got injured before (the race). After I won, I got an MRI and the doctor said, 'You need to sit out for like six weeks.'

"I ended up only missing a month and then I went to Killington, the next World Cup, without any training and just kind of jumped in. So it was quite difficult that build-up. And then that kind of slowed my momentum down for like the first half of the season, having that injury."

She bounced back in February to take her second World Cup win at Kranjska Gora in Slovenia with Shiffrin missing, and the season was soon curtailed due to coronavirus hitting Europe and northern Italy in particular.

Robinson said, "There was meant to be three more GSs - another big chunk of the season - and they all got cancelled so it was kind of like a anti-climax. Last season there was definitely quite a lot going on obviously and COVID thrown in as well at the end made it all quite busy and difficult."

Shiffrin's absence in Soelden leaves Robinson as one of the favourites, along with last season's giant slalom and overall World Cup winner Federica Brignone.

2019 Soelden giant slalom podium (L-R): runner-up Mikaela Shiffrin, winner Alice Robinson, third-placed Tessa Worley

While the World Cup is important, the big focus of the season is February's World Championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo, which will host the 2026 Winter Olympics.

On her goals for the season, she says, "Obviously I'd be aiming for a medal in the GS there, preferably a gold one! But you've got to kind of aim high, we'll see.

"And also being consistently in the top three in GS. But all you want to do every race is win so that's kind of always what I'm thinking.

"A big thing about winning the Crystal Globe is consistency. I've won a couple races so I can be at that racing level. But I think for me it's more about kind of being able to do it every race, that's the biggest challenge."

While clearly a giant slalom specialist, Robinson is keen to move more into the speed events although perhaps not the downhill just yet.

"I haven't even been on downhill skis yet in my life so it's going to be quite a new thing for me. So not 100 percent on that yet.

"I'm planning to do all the Super-G races this year. I've had some kind of partial Super-G success in the past so I think it could be something that could potentially be quite good for me and I think it's also really good for GS to kind of change it up a bit.

"I've always wanted to get into the speed side a bit more. It's a bit harder because so much of it is experience, but that's kind of my goal."

Alice Robinson on her way to victory in the Kransja Gora giant slalom in February 2020

Following Lindsey's lead

Robinson says Lindsey Vonn was "probably my biggest idol from the ski world" growing up and she is now guided by the American's former coaches Chris Knight and Jeff Fergus.

Knight is a fellow New Zealander, which Robinson admits is a big help.

"It is good having another Kiwi around, so they understand the Kiwi-like attitude as well. And also I get told off quite a bit from other members of the staff being like, 'Can you slow down?' or 'Stop mumbling' or anything like that."

Vonn's visits to New Zealand for training with the likes of fellow Olympic champion Ted Ligety made a big impression on Robinson and the country's ski scene.

"It's not like we had access to the World Cup or anything in New Zealand. But I think we all knew the name Lindsey Vonn. And I remember we'd always see Lindsey and Ted, and we'd all try and sneak on the T-bar (ski lift) with them or get a photo with them or something.

"Lindsey was someone I really looked up to in my younger skiing career because she was so successful. And yeah, I loved part of how she got all these injuries and came out of the other side and everything." - Alice Robinson to Olympic Channel

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Like Vonn, Robinson is trying to succeed in a European-dominated sport.

The Covid pandemic meant she spent around six months back in New Zealand - "the longest I've probably been at home without travelling in years" - before returning to Europe in mid-August.

"I didn't really do much training in New Zealand. I did like 10 days at home, but it wasn't really like proper training because no one on my team could be there.

"Being at home was quite hard because no one knew when we were going to be able to train again, if there was going to be a season. There was so much speculation that it was really hard to kind of mentally prepare for it. So being back here is kind of helped a lot.

"It's been difficult, but I think also everyone's kind of in the same boat. You know, there are so many people that are worse off at the moment."

Being back in Europe means catching up with her family can be difficult with New Zealand 11 hours ahead of central Europe.

"I always want to talk to my family. Their morning time is my night time. And I can't really talk to them in the mornings because I'm skiing so the only time I can really talk to them is at night-time."

Alice Robinson during a news conference at PyeongChang 2018

Excited for Beijing

Having gone to PyeongChang 2018 to gain experience, Robinson looks certain to be a medal contender at Beijing 2022.

It's an inspiring prospect not only for her but also for Kiwis at home.

She said, "It seems like it's coming up really quickly. It's my first Olympics that I'm actually going to be quite competitive so that's quite exciting.

"Being from New Zealand... we didn't grow up watching the World Cup circuit or the World Championships. But the Olympics is always something that we watch so I think that's why it's a bit more important to me, because it only happens every four years. And that's what we watched when we were growing up.

"I think that kind of puts a bit more pressure on myself but also a lot more excitement. And it'll get some people of New Zealand a lot more excited than, you know, just the old World Cups!"