Exclusive: Alice Robinson on growing up fast, inspiring the next generation and Olympic pressure
In an exclusive interview ahead of the new season, New Zealand skiing sensation Alice Robinson chats with Pete Sharland about having to grow up fast away from home, becoming the one who has to inspire the next generation, and the added pressure and expectations that will be on her in what is an Olympic season.
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Alice Robinson grins over Zoom from her room in Austria.
She’s just been asked how she deals with the duality of her status as New Zealand’s premier skier.
For you see on the one hand Robinson is very much the young pup of the skiing world, after all at just 19 she was the youngest World Cup winner last season, male or female. The youngest man was Lucas Braathen at 20, the second youngest woman? Katharina Liensberger at 23.
But at the same time Robinson, alongside fellow teenagers Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous, represents a chance for New Zealand to do something absolutely astonishing in a few months' time in Beijing. All three are great bets to medal and Robinson has as good chance as anyone to take giant slalom gold, which would be her own piece of history as the country’s first winter sports Olympic champion.
QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Alice Robinson and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott talk to each other during the New Zealand Olympic Committee Athlete Selection Announcement for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games at Cardrona Alpine Resort on September 19,
Image credit: Getty Images
Her profile in the land where she grew up, a country dominated by other sports, is still relatively small but it is starting to grow, and you can be sure it will have exploded after a Games that is at a favourable time for the New Zealand audience. Already she’s been tasked with inspiring a younger generation, while still figuring out her place on the World Cup circuit.
“Um yeah,” Robinson says laughing. “I mean I quite like being the younger one on the circuit because I think it kind of just runs with my personality a bit because I like being the underdog,
“And I think, especially when you're younger, there's pressure going into it but then at the same time, being from New Zealand, there’s not as much [compared to athletes from countries with more traditional skiing backgrounds].
“I'm kind of like the young one and not really known... I mean I'm known but I'm not like the biggest, big dog I suppose."
She continues: "But when I'm at home I've got to take that leadership role a bit more than when I’m over here [in Europe] obviously.
And so when I'm back in New Zealand I just try and switch that a bit and try and share some wisdom, like the wisdom I do have with all the younger kids,
“I just try and be inspirational and help out as much as I can around with the kids races and things and I always go up there and hang out with the kids and local ski clubs and give the medals and stuff like that and always answer everyone's questions as well as I can.
“I'm just learning more and more and also, being one of the youngest on tour, I have to learn two things at once: learning about skiing and learning about racing on the World Cup, but then also being on the other side of the world and in a very foreign place to the world I grew up in.
QUEENSTOWN, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Alice Robinson poses for a photo during the New Zealand Olympic Committee Athlete Selection Announcement for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games at Cardrona Alpine Resort on September 19, 2021 in Queenstown, New Z
Image credit: Getty Images
“I grew up in New Zealand, I had to soak up the environment that I was in so much more than other athletes when they're young. It's different racing if you're young, been doing this all your life and you're racing in your home country, everything around you is the same, whereas I just had to soak it up as much as I could because I was here learning about skiing and learning about racing on the World Cup - but also learning about living in a completely different place and different cultures and different languages and stuff. I just try and be as much of a sponge as I can.”
Robinson is certainly a quick learner. At the end of the 2018-19 season she gave a glimpse of her immense talent with a second-placed finish in Andorra. Then came the moment she announced herself on the circuit, a blistering performance where she is now, Solden, at the start of the 2019-20 season to stun double-Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin. In doing so she became the youngest winner of a World Cup race since Shiffrin herself seven years prior.
Despite injury setbacks the next season and Covid-19 disrupting her most recent campaign more than any athlete, Robinson has added two more wins to her young resume as well as another podium, a second-place in Slovakia last March. Remember when we mentioned Braathen and Liensberger as the youngest race-winners besides Robinson? They were both winning their maiden World Cup race, Robinson already has three. Were it not for disruptions to her preparations it could be even more.
“Last year was definitely a tough one,” admits Robinson.
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“For me. I'm conscious that at the start it was really tough and I was struggling a bit with my form. I think just because I missed a lot of the preseason training because of Covid-19 restrictions and everything and then kind of got into a bit of a rut, but I think I learned a lot and managed to pull myself out of it and finished off pretty well. So that's kind of the moment I'm trying to take through.”
By her own admission, Robinson isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with the work she’s done over the off-season. As with most athletes at the top of their game it’s about subtle tweaks here and there. “Consistency is something I’m always trying to work on,” she says adding from a tactical perspective she’s always, “trying to work out the best possible line to take.”
It’s worth reiterating just how difficult it is for Robinson right now. Like most non-European athletes she has a European base, in Italy, but because of the strict rules in place in New Zealand she now won’t be able to return home until the end of the season. That’s over five months away without seeing her friends and family in person. That makes an already fairly isolating situation even harder.
Alice Robinson of New Zealand celebrates winning the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Women's Giant Slalom with Mikaela Shiffrin of USA during the flower ceremony for the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Women's Giant Slalom at Rettenbachferner on October 2
Image credit: Getty Images
But Robinson is resilient, and she has big goals in mind. Her number one priority is the Olympics, and she isn’t just going there to make up the numbers. “My goal is to come away with a medal and I think it’s a possibility and I think I can do it,” she insists.
She’s certainly in with a chance, especially as the hill in China will be brand new for all the athletes. None of them will have skied on it until they touchdown in Beijing, mostly just reduced to seeing a POV video sent around on Whatsapp. That means for someone like Robinson, who on her day is one of the very best in the world, it is a level playing field that takes her youth and inexperience out of the equation.
With that comes added pressure of course. The races should be around 17:00 and 20:00 in New Zealand, perfect timing for a country to cheer on a new hero.
“I think it's different for me being from New Zealand and that all of a sudden the whole country's paying attention to my races.
Alice Robinson of New Zealand celebrates during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Giant Slalom on February 15, 2020 in Kranjska Gora Slovenia
Image credit: Getty Images
“So for me, it's going to get more of that added pressure, going into it because now all of a sudden, we go from no-one following my World Cup journey really, at home, to all of a sudden, there's all this attention on the Olympics, you know, just because that's what people can watch.
“So I think it's kind of that added pressure from home that I'm not used to having as well but I'm just using it to like fuel me and motivate me more, to work harder just so I can put really being like the best position when I get there.”
And Robinson doesn’t go easy on herself. She’s planning to race more or less every Super-G this season as she plans to get more into the speed side of ski-racing, having certified herself as a top-ten Giant Slalom racer. That could mean a double shot at a medal in Beijing. Longer term she also wants to add Downhill to her repertoire.
Whatever happens this season Robinson’s story is one of remarkable strength, and another reminder of just how extraordinary human beings can be. Skiing can sometimes present itself as a closed shop but it needs more Robinsons, the sport is only better for it.
Ed note - In conducting these pre-season interviews we’re trying to highlight athletes who will not only star in Beijing but ones who you need to be watching right now. They are must-see TV and you don’t want to miss them in action. Robinson is the perfect example, every second she spends on snow is breathtaking and is exactly what sport is meant to be.