There was cheery atmosphere in Kranjska Gora this weekend despite inclement weather as the Slovenian alpine resort hosted the world's best women alpine skiers for the 60th Golden Fox Cup, a competition originally held in Maribor.
Slovak champion Petra Vlhova celebrated a hard-fought victory at the World Cup slalom race on 7 January in difficult snowy and foggy conditions to claim her third overall Golden Fox Cup win after missing out on podium to place 4th in a rainy giant slalom the day before.
Petra Vlhova wins the Golden Fox Cup after coming in first in the slalom. Photo: Bor Slana/STA
"I am really happy and proud because it was really tough conditions, especially the second run, from the first gate to the finish, was a big fight," Vlhova said. "When I crossed the finish line and saw the green light, it was just an explosion because it's something different to win in front of many Slovak fans."
There were quite many indeed among some 3,000 spectators who gathered at the foot of the Podkoren hill for each of the two events. There was some disappointment for the local fans but Andreja Slokar did make it to the finish line on second run in the slalom to place 14th.
In a major surprise, American AJ Hurt made her first World Cup podium by placing third in the slalom, having improved from 16th position by posting the best time in the second run. German Lena Dürr placed second.
AJ Hurt, a 23-year-old who entered the race with a bib number 38, told Radio Slovenija that the snow was pretty soft, but she kind of liked it, because she grew up in California and was used to that kind of skiing.
American AJ Hurt celebrates with her team after winning her first World Cup podium in Kranjska Gora. Photo: Bor Slana/STA
Her compatriot Mikaela Shiffrin, the overall World Cup leader, straddled a gate in the first run. Fighting a cold, she placed 9th in the giant slalom, after winning one in Kranjska Gora the year before.
Vlhova and Shiffrin have now each won three slaloms this season with the Slovak reducing her gap to five points in the discipline's standings. Shiffrin is still 207 points ahead in the overall standings.
Grenier's favourite hill
In another surprise, Canadian Valerie Grenier won the giant slalom race in rain the day before in what was her second career win after she clinched her first one on the same hill the year before to become the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup giant slalom race in 49 years.
"I think this is definitely my favourite hill ... I don't know why, but there's something about this slope," the 27-year old said after putting in a storming second run to chalk up only her third career podium.
"I wanted to do as well as I could, I was hoping for a podium. After the first run I was pretty mad at myself for my mistakes, and after the first run I really wanted to win because I was so annoyed," she said.
Canadian Valerie Grenier wins the women's World Cup giant slalom race in Kranjska Gora. Photo: Bor Slana/STA
Lara Gut-Behrami of Switzerland came in second and Italian Federica Brignone finished third to keep her lead in the giant slalom standings.
The pair commented on the soaking conditions with Gut-Behrami saying it was tough having to take an umbrella on the chairlift up the start gate. She had to use a hair dryer at the finish to dry her boots. Brignone said she had to use three pairs of socks, three T-shirts and two ski suits.
However, the organisers deserved praise for fighting against the odds to prepare the course well enough to see all the competitors through despite the mild conditions that have been persisting in Slovenia throughout the winter.
Slovenian Golden Foxes
Tina maze, Mateja Svet and Nataša Bokal, Slovenia's former skiing champions, who had been winning at the Golden Fox Cup in the past, both at its original venue in Maribor and in Kranjska Gora, joked that there were times when the finish area was soaked with water, which was not the case this time.
They got together at a special event at the VIP area on 6 January to mark the occasion of the 60th iteration of the Golden Fox Cup and share their memories.
Svet, now 55, became the first Slovenian to win the Golden Fox Cup in 1988, sparking a wave of euphoria in the country by sweeping both events in Kranjska Gora. She won another event two years later in Maribor when 20,000 supporters gathered at the foot of the Pohorje hill to watch the race.
"I have many fond memories of the Golden Fox, also because of those three wins ... There were also a few disappointments, obviously ... But for me it's always been the home venue that I've had the support from the fans," she said, remembering that in the 80s that support was really massive.
Fans cheering skiers at the World Cup slalom in Kranjska Gora. Photo: Bor Slana/STA
The winners used to receive a fox fur neck wrap and hat, but Tina Maze, a six time Golden Fox podium finisher and three time winner, said she never wore one of those. The fur was later replaced with gold brooches.
The "reward" has long fallen to pieces, she said, adding that she always had a clear stand on such animal products. "I made it clear even back then that I wouldn't have the fur, my mother wore it because fur was fashionable at the time."
Originally held on the Pohorje hill above Maribor in the north-east of the country, the competition has had to be moved to Kranjska Gora at the foot of Slovenia's highest peaks eleven times due to mild conditions and lack of snow. Since this year its official home is the Podkoren hill, which also hosts the men's Alpine Ski World Cup circuit.