World Cup winner before turning 18, Alice Robinson is special
This time last year Alice Robinson stunned the skiing world, including the very best, Mikaela Shiffrin. Now after a breakout year to remember, the New Zealand teenager is back for more after a crazy off-season. In an exclusive chat with Pete Sharland she talks through her struggles in the last few months, growing up in a country without a competitive skiing pedigree, and her aims for this season.
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
This article was originally published in October before the 2020-21 Alpine Skiing season
As with most interviews with athletes these days it’s not long before talk turns to preparations in a Covid-19 world. Every athlete and every sport is different of course but they are united at the moment by the way the pandemic has interrupted their training.
But surely one exception would be if you were based in New Zealand? The country that universally appears to have handled the virus the best.
“Yeah, it was actually disrupted a lot because even though we were Covid-19 free, they weren't letting anyone into the country,” says a smiling Alice Robinson over a Zoom call from Austria.
“So I couldn't get any of my coaches or staff in because they obviously all live abroad, so my whole off-season plans kind of went down the drain because I couldn't train at home where I normally train, so I pretty much went six months with no skiing which is the longest I've ever really spent without it.”
Being a competitive skier from New Zealand is a tricky proposition at the best of times; it is a nation with just three Winter Olympic medals to its name, of which one is in Alpine Skiing. That came when Annelise Coberger created history at Albertville in 1992 with a silver medal. The sheer logistical nature of skiing in Europe or North America (with occasional races in China or Japan) is extremely difficult and with Covid-19 scuppering most of Robinson’s best-laid plans she had to think outside the box, relying on an old friend and coach to design a rough course for her on a mountain. Even by her standards this has been this an extraordinary period for the young Kiwi.
It’s probably fortunate then that this is one extraordinary young woman.
This time last year Robinson was 17, preparing for the season’s traditional curtain-raiser in Soelden. She had already started to generate some buzz as she won gold at the Junior World Championships earlier in the year and in the final race of the previous season she finished second in the Giant Slalom in Andorra behind Crystal Globe winner Mikaela Shiffrin.
What followed seven months later in Austria however, still came as a big shock. She stunned Shiffrin and the skiing world, beating the American by 0.06s in winning the first the race of the season. It was the first time a skier from New Zealand had won a World Cup race since Claudia Riegler in 1997 and the first time ever in the Giant Slalom. She became the youngest woman ever to win at Soelden and perhaps most poetically of all she became the youngest race winner since Shiffrin herself nearly seven years earlier.
WATCH - The run that gave Alice Robinson victory over Mikaela Shiffrin
“I think I thought there was like a possibility that I could win a race that year because obviously I had the second run of the world champs and then I had that really good result in Andorra,” Robinson tells Eurosport when asked about that day.
But I knew it was like probably going to take a while for me to get my experience and confidence levels up.
“I think I also had a bit of an advantage because I didn't really have an expectation on myself, it wasn’t like if I don't win this it’ll be a disaster like it was going to be a bonus.
“Any kind of podium is gonna be awesome, so I wasn't really so fixated on beating Mikaela or anything. All I kind of wanted to do was just ski really well and that's kind of what I always try to think of; I know if I ski well then the results will come.”
The results did come after Soelden, albeit slightly interrupted as Robinson battled with a knee injury. Nevertheless she returned three top 10 finishes and then a second victory in Slovenia in the last Giant Slalom before the virus brought an early end to the season.
'Brilliant' - Top three runs as Robinson claims stunning giant slalom win
Now Robinson is healthy and even though she had a difficult off-season she’s looking to make her time in Europe count. She came over earlier than usual because of the virus and won’t be able to return until the season is over, such are the tight restrictions in place in New Zealand. She knows though that her discipline will be more competitive than ever.
“Yeah, I don't know, but I mean you know the GS. It's so competitive. In GS there’s like seven girls that can be a winner every time," she continues.
“Federica Brignone, Marta Bassino, Petra Vlhova, Tessa Worley. I think those kind of skiers and obviously Mikaela those are normally the five to lookout for.
“And then you've obviously got people like Wendy [Holdener] and Meta [Hrovat].
“And I think there's a couple girls coming back from injury as well, so I think it's gonna be quite interesting. I'm just trying to focus on what I'm doing.”
Alice Robinson of New Zealand reacts in the finish area of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup giant slalom in Kranjska Gora on February 15, 2020.
Image credit: Getty Images
Robinson stresses that thoughts of the overall title are still a long way off but she is gradually expanding her repertoire; she plans to do the parallel Giant Slaloms this season and is aiming for every Super-G as well, although she adds while laughing that she’s still never been on a pair of Downhill skis in her life.
In many ways it’s even remarkable that she is here at all when she starts to talk about her back story. Her father grew up in Brisbane whilst her mother grew up in a rural farm also in Australia. By her own admission neither Robinson parent probably saw snow until they were in their 20s.
“You know being from Australia you probably are as far away from the mountains as you can get like where they were from and they didn’t really know much about skiing,” Robinson says.
“But my mom played hockey semi-professionally and my dad also played rugby at quite a high level so they’re both quite big sports people.
“Then they moved to Queenstown because they used to go there on holiday and they loved skiing just for fun even though they didn't start skiing until they were a little older. Then we moved there and they were like ‘oh well we live here why shouldn’t our kids be semi-decent skiers?’
“So they put us in ski school and stuff like that. And then we also did the race development program and stuff in the school holidays,
And then I think the reason I actually started racing is because I saw some kids in suits and I was like ‘oh my God, they look so cool I want one of those!’
“Then I was like you know what I want to do it. I want to do it, I want a suit and I want to race because I'm racing in a woolen jumper and ski pants just for fun.
“But all the way through my skiing, my parents were so supportive, even though they didn't really know anything about it,
Alice Robinson of New Zealand celebrates on podium after winning the Audi FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup Giant Slalom race in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia on February 15, 2020.
Image credit: Getty Images
“They always were asking people for advice and I think they did manage to do pretty well with my pathway considering they had no idea what they were doing.”
They certainly did do well even though a young Robinson had to regularly resort to YouTube to watch skiing footage with the time difference and a lack of TV coverage a big hindrance for her learning in New Zealand. She loved watching American greats such as Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, as well as of course Shiffrin. Their fearless attitude inspired her.
And she needed it. It’s hard enough for any young athlete breaking into the top tier of a sport, even more so for a 17-year-old from a country that doesn’t have an extensive skiing history.
“That's kind of one thing I've always said is that I feel like I pretty much had to figure a lot of it out on my own, especially when I first started doing this,” Robinson says when asked about her unique situation.
There's no one really there on my team to facilitate me and other girls to kind of make me feel comfortable.
“I remember when I first got to the World Cup. I was so scared because I was the only New Zealander and I didn't know anyone
“I kind of slowly figured it out on my own and I think that is one thing that's missing, I don't have those experienced athletes helping me, but stuff like having my coaches, Jeff Ferguson and Chris Knight, they have both worked with Lindsey Vonn and they're really experienced.
“So I do feel like I use them a lot to learn about the courses and the hills and stuff, so that's who I kind of rely on for like wisdom, I suppose. But for all kind of the athlete stuff? Yeah, pretty much have to do it all on my own.”
As a fellow non-European Robinson can empathize with Shiffrin, saying that a lot of their peers just won’t understand the sacrifice that people from outside of Europe have to make.
“It's obviously really hard, I don't think the Europeans really get it.” Robinson says as she reflects on the difficulties involved in being a professional skier in Europe when you’re not from that continent.
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
“They can literally drive home a few hours and get back home every now and then.
“So I feel like for me ski racing, it pretty much consumes your whole life because it's not like you can jump home and stuff in between races and camps and everything like that.
“So I think for sure it’s really tough but something that's always helped me in the past is that I can do my summer training at home which people like Mikaela can't even do because she has to go somewhere else as well. So I think that helps quite a lot.”
Comparing Robinson, who is 18 and has just two wins to her name, to Shiffrin, a five-time champion of the world and double Olympic gold medal winner with 66 World Cup wins, is premature at best but the New Zealander is one of the few who might be able to feel what Shiffrin goes through when she leaves her home each season to compete in this sport. Such is her youth and talent that Shiffrin might just be her potential rival as well, as speculative as that might be to say.
Now Robinson, and the rest of the field, will begin their season without Shiffrin, keen to show that skiing is more than just about the American poster-girl. In a group of people with interesting stories, hers might be the most fascinating of all. What’s remarkable is just how much there is left to write.