Robinson joins skiing’s elite with World Cup finals silver

UPDATE: The skiing career of Queenstown 17-year-old Alice Robinson has scaled new heights, finishing second in the women's giant slalom at the World Cup finals in Andorra this morning.

Robinson was just 0.3s behind the winner, the undisputed star of women's alpine skiing American Mikaela Shiffrin - who entered the record books with her fourth World Cup trophy in a season.

It was the first World Cup podium placing for Robinson, who gained entry to the elite World Cup finals with her victory at last month's world junior championships. She pushed world champion Petra Vlhova of Slovakia back into third place. 

LockerRoom contributor David Leggat spoke to New Zealand's skiing wonder-kid shortly before the World Cup finals.

In a few weeks’ time, Alice Robinson will be back in the classroom at Wakatipu High School, focusing on her studies.

She enjoys her academic work. But this time when she glances out the window at the mountains around Queenstown, she could be forgiven for daydreaming of whizzing down the slopes as the new world junior giant slalom champion.

That achievement, as part of a stunning fortnight’s racing, is substantial.

Add in that she is ranked No. 31 in the world in giant slalom - and is No. 1 under-18 and No. 2 under-21 in the world in the event - she’s clearly on a fast-track to the pinnacle of alpine skiing.

Last year, Robinson became New Zealand’s youngest Olympian when she competed at PyeongChang, South Korea, at the age of 16.

It was, she reflects, a crazy three months.

"I went from racing children to World Cups and, all of a sudden, the Olympics. It was very intense and great to get that experience. But very, very busy."

She hasn’t taken her foot off the pedal, either.

She’s had a terrific European campaign, since heading there last November. Robinson has just competed in the world, then the world junior championships, and has two more GS World Cup events in the Czech Republic and Andorra to round out her campaign before returning to her school books in mid-March.

In the world champs at Are, Sweden – a country she’d never competed in before - Robinson finished a hugely impressive 17th, with a combined time of 2min 04.75. But that’s not what made it special.

She clocked the fastest time in the entire field, 1:00.57 on her second run, having gone out of the gates first - then watched as the world’s elite GS racers followed her down and failed to catch her time.

“I wasn’t sure how fast that was going to be. I came to the finish and, though I felt good, I wasn’t sure how everyone else was going to ski," she says.

“Watching more girls coming down and seeing I still had the fastest run, it sunk in slowly."

Her confidence soared: “I knew I could get a podium at the world juniors if I skied that way.”

Then it was onto Val di Fassa, a spectacular setting in the Dolomites in northern Italy, which, by happy coincidence, also happens to have been Robinson’s base this season.

Robinson won the GS by 1.06 seconds - the first New Zealander to achieve that feat in its 38 years. Again, she was fastest on the second run.

The next four placegetters were from Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia and Austria - world alpine powerhouses and all beaten by a 1.63m Queenstown teenager.

New Zealand is not a hotbed of international skiing, although it’s a well-regarded training destination for the leading European and American skiers in their off-season. The annual Winter Games in the Queenstown region draws high-calibre alpine skiers, freeskiers and snowboarders and is a popular destination for the world’s elite racers.

“The thing that stops New Zealanders is that you’ve got to go overseas,” Robinson said.

“It’s massive in Europe, and probably a bit overwhelming. You’ve got to be away from home and it’s hard to break into ski racing because there’s such a volume, and culture, in European countries.”

Her recent achievements have rammed home to Robinson is that she belongs in the highest company.

Then again, the signs have been there for a while, if anyone bothered to look.

Robinson has made huge strides in the year since she finished 35th in the giant slalom at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

She was third on her debut FIS – or second tier - race at Cardrona in 2017, and won the GS race the next day, pocketing 18.18 FIS points.

In comparison, it took the world’s finest female skier, American Mikaela Shiffrin, 11 starts to get her first sub-20 point result.

Victory in a Noram (North American) Cup race in British Columbia in December 2017 was the best result by a New Zealand skier in their first year of international competition.

Now, more recently, consider this: on February 2, Robinson became the first New Zealander to qualify for a second run in a World Cup GS (only the top 30 on the first run can contest the second).

It was in Maribor, Slovenia. She was flying on her second run, but crashed.

A week later, at Berchtesgaden, Germany, Robinson won a European Cup GS, becoming the first New Zealander since Claudia Riegler in 2001 to achieve that feat.

Robinson acknowledges she’s aware of the deeds of the likes of Riegler and the 1992 Olympic silver medallist Annelise Coberger, but doesn’t dwell on it these days.

“I’m just thinking about my goals and what I’m doing.”

Born in Sydney, she arrived in New Zealand with her family at age four. Older sister Tully and younger brother Ben both ski, but for fun.

An indication of how she’s progressed comes in a couple of ways.

Robinson admits when she started competing against the Shiffrins of this game, she would watch them and study their results.

“But now I realise it doesn’t really matter. There’s no need to compare,” she says.

“There are so many other factors going into everything. I just look at who I’m racing now, and work on that, rather than look at what people have done.” 

In those earlier times, Robinson, who has always been a fast, aggressive skier, didn’t always make it to the bottom of a run. That’s changing.

“She has no fear of speed,” her head coach Tim Cafe said.

“But she’s learnt a lot more risk management this year. Not that she holds back, but her finish rate is is much more consistent than last year. It was important for her to figure that out.”

Robinson’s achievements follow hard on Piera Hudson becoming the first New Zealander to make a top 30 finish at a World Cup in the slalom at Killington, Vermont, last November.

Hudson is favouring the slalom, a demanding technical discipline, whereas Robinson is likely moving to the longer, faster events. The Super G is beckoning. It doesn’t necessarily mean their paths won’t cross, but they may be on different trajectories.

That said, Cafe and Robinson both rate Hudson’s GS proficiency highly. In Robinson’s case, the idea is to become as strong as she can in one discipline, then branch out.

‘’We wanted to get Alice onto the world stage, then start moving towards the Super G,” says Cafe, who was a 2010 Winter Olympic alpine skier.

“She’s good at it naturally, but our philosophy has been with speed events we’ll bring them in, in the next couple of years.”

Cafe has relished being at Robinson’s side through her rapid rise.

“At the worlds she demonstrated she was able to keep her composure. Winning that second run was a crazy good achievement. There’s no question she’s got what it takes to get to the top.”

And from the coaching perspective? Cafe takes immense satisfaction from seeing her career unfold – “and it’s also helped me get a lot of clarity that the process and systems we are putting in place are working. Now we’ve got a whole bunch of new things to figure out.”

Nice problems though. “Exactly.”

So it’s back to school soon, and Robinson is looking forward to it. She reckons it’s not that hard to get her mind back on her studies, of which science and social sciences sit top of her interest list.

“I get bored if I’m not doing stuff, so I get back into it pretty easily,” she says.

“When I’m skiing I am fully focused, but when I come home I like to grind and catch up on school, and it seems to have worked out fine.”

With several young New Zealand women making an impact across the snow sports spectrum, Cafe is rapt with what he’s seeing.

“It speaks to our culture a little bit. We value women’s sport and definitely there’s a rough and toughness to all snow sports that New Zealand women are not afraid of, and that’s really cool.”

He’s also delighted by Robinson’s balanced lifestyle.

“It’s just good from a holistic perspective. It makes you a better sportsperson to be well-rounded - and she needs to be a kid as well.”

And remember, for all she’s achieved in the last few weeks and her rapid climb up the alpine ladder, Alice Robinson is still just 17.

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