Slovenia’s new Alpine skiing queen
Young Slovenian skier Ilka Stuhec has proved a worthy successor to the now retired Tina Maze, a four-time Olympic medallist. A dominant force in the speed events in the 2016/17 season, Stuhec won the world downhill title in St Moritz in February 2017, and great things are expected of her at PyeongChang 2018.
A two-time world junior championLike Tina Maze, Ilka Stuhec hails from Slovenj Gradec, in the mountains on Slovenia’s border with Austria. And like her famous forerunner, she grew up in an environment where Alpine skiing means everything. Stuhec first put on a pair of skis at the age of two, and as she later recalled “would stay on them, in one way or another, for as long as I could.”
The daughter of a ski coach at a local club, the young Ilka was a richly talented performer on the international junior scene, winning the slalom and giant slalom titles at the 2007 European Youth Olympic Winter Festival in Jaca in the Spanish Pyrenees. That same year, the SK Branik Maribor skier won the world junior slalom title in Flachau (AUT) and followed up 12 months later by adding the world junior downhill crown in Formigal (ESP). The 2007/08 season also saw the hugely promising youngster make her FIS World Cup debut, at the age of 17.
Injury setbacksStuhec’s rapid ascent was halted when she sustained a serious knee injury in 2008. After undergoing no fewer than five operations, she returned to the slopes in the winter of 2011/12, having been dropped by the Slovenian national team in the meantime. It was then that her mother took charge, becoming her ski waxer, coach, video analyst, masseuse, physiotherapist, driver and manager. “She saved my career,” said the grateful Stuhec. “I wouldn’t have got to where I am today without her.”
Olympic debut in SochiReappearing on the World Cup scene with her mother by her side, Stuhec scored a number of top 10 finishes in the downhill, combined, giant slalom and super-G and won a clutch of national titles before competing in her first Olympic Winter Games at Sochi 2014.
“I’m proud of coming tenth in the downhill and 13th in super-G,” she said, recalling her efforts in Russia, where compatriot Maze stole the show in winning downhill and giant slalom gold. Either side of the Games, Stuhec failed to make much of an impression at the world championships held in Schladming in 2013 and Vail/Beaver Creek two years later.
Summer retreatIn the summer of 2016, Stuhec headed to the slopes of South America for pre-season training, having decided to change her ski manufacturer and hire a sports psychologist and fitness trainer. By this time she had also returned to the Slovenian national team, where she was training with the men. “You just have to follow your dreams, and my dreams are golden,” she said. “The most important thing for me is to achieve the goals I set for myself and to have fun, whatever I’m doing.”
A winter to rememberIt was a very focused Stuhec who emerged for the 2016/17 season. Having honed her technique and taken her self-confidence and determination to new levels, the 26-year-old made a stunning start to the campaign, winning the first downhill of the season at Lake Louise (CAN) on 2 December and the second the following day.
Victory in the combined at Val d’Isère came next, followed by another downhill win on the French’s resort’s OK de la Daille run and a super-G triumph in Cortina d’Ampezzo in late January 2017. The following month came the crowning moment of Stuhec’s year, when she succeeded Maze as the world downhill champion in St Moritz.
Producing a thrilling run in which she attacked every turn and reached speeds of up to 125 km/h at the bottom of the course, Stuhec won by 0.40 seconds from Austria’s Stephanie Venier, with the USA’s Lindsey Vonn a further 0.05 back. Falling into each other’s arms, Stuhec and her mother choked back the tears as they celebrated an emotional victory.
All eyes on PyeongChang 2018Stuhec ended the season on a high note, winning the downhill at the FIS World Cup Finals in Aspen, her seventh victory of a glorious campaign that she capped by collecting crystal globes in the combined and the downhill.
Following that remarkable run of success, the Slovenian is entitled to dream of Olympic glory in PyeongChang. “I think the Olympics are something special because it’s one race every four years,” she said, looking ahead to that challenge. “But I try to take it as a normally, as every other race, so that I don’t tell myself: ‘OK, you’ve got this one chance. The other one is in four years’.”