Alice Robinson’s brilliant World Cup giant slalom victory may have caught New Zealand’s ski fraternity off-guard, but not the country’s most successful international skier.
No, not Olympic silver slalom medallist Annelise Coberger, but Claudia Riegler, who has won more World Cup titles than any New Zealand skier.
When Robinson whizzed down the demanding Soelden course in the season’s opening event in Austria to pip the world’s best, Mikaela Shiffrin, she didn’t so much raise European eyebrows as shove them through the top of their heads.
The 17-year-old from Queenstown had threatened to do something like this when serving notice of her uncommon talent last season. She won the world junior championship giant slalom crown in Italy, and shortly after, finished second to Shiffrin in the season-ending World Cup event in Andorra.
In Soelden last weekend, on a tricky course, Robinson clocked 2m 17.36s for her two runs; Shiffrin was another 0.06s back after Robinson’s blistering second run did the job.
Riegler was delighted with Robinson’s success. The three-time Kiwi Olympian is now married to 2006 Olympic downhill champion, Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz and they live in Annecy, France, with their two sons.
Although Coberger has the big Olympic medal beside her name, it was Riegler who totted up the World Cup victories. She was the last New Zealander to make a World Cup podium, back in 2002 when placing third at Lenzerheide, Switzerland. She retired the following year with a remarkable record of four World Cup slalom titles and four third placings.
And without wanting to sound wise after the event, Riegler insists she saw Robinson’s success coming.
“It was no surprise to me,” she says.
“I watched it on TV and a couple of Austrian journos called me between runs and I said ‘Watch out, you are going to be surprised. I think she will win today’.
“They said ‘What? What?’ I said ‘You’ll see’.”
The two Kiwi skiers have met a couple of times and Riegler has liked what she’s seen – both in terms of talent and the personality of the teenager, who’s now back at Wakatipu High School preparing for exams.
“I could tell she has this winner character. You get a lot of talented athletes, a lot who want to achieve on the world stage, but talent and hard work isn’t enough,” Riegler says.
“Once you’ve been on the world stage and won races, you see it in others. Alice has got this winner attitude and fire from within. She definitely has what it takes.”
Riegler believes Robinson has strong support around her, both in terms of family and coaching structures. She is now working with New Zealander Chris Knight, who coached the outstanding American Lindsay Vonn.
“And she doesn’t get caught up in results,” she says.
“First you have to ski well. When I saw her first run the other day I knew she had extra speed left, something in the tank. So that was why I was thinking ‘This is going to be the day’.”
Riegler plays down the significance of Robinson beating Shiffrin, the 24-year-old from Vail, Colorado, who is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, three-time overall World Cup champ and four-time world slalom champion.
“I don’t think the fact she beat Mikaela matters. To win you have to beat everybody.
“Alice is not focusing on who she is beating, and that’s why she is going to win more. She’s focusing on her skiing, not who she has to beat. She just has to stay calm.”
Her ability to hurtle down a slope at uncommon speed is now apparent for all her rivals to see.
“The difficult thing is to know you don’t have to give 120 percent. It doesn’t work, you make mistakes, crash or miss a gate,” Riegler explains.
“She’s got to know her speed is good enough. [She needs to] focus on solid runs and don’t try to go for that extra bit more. Emotionally that’s the hardest thing to do. That’s all mental, and learning.”
And what of Riegler? Life is pretty good.
She hasn’t forgotten her New Zealand ties. Her sons are nine-year-old Aroha and eight-year-old Tana, named after a certain former All Black captain. She is clearly an All Black fan.
While Coberger’s Olympic success in 1992 at Albertville – by chance about 45km from where Riegler lives in the south east of France, close to Geneva – is New Zealand’s best-known alpine skiing achievement, Riegler’s record is substantial.
She competed at three Winter Olympics and attended a fourth, in 2006 as New Zealand team attache.
But in a one-year period, from January 7, 1996 to February 2, 1997, she won her four World Cup slalom titles – at St Gervais, France; Park City in Utah; Crans-Montana and Laax, both in Switzerland. A third-place in Maribor, Slovenia, in early January 1996 kick-started her podium run, which ended at Lenzerheide in 2002.
And if you think she has settled into domestic bliss and left her days on skis behind her, think again.
To her surprise, she was asked to represent the French Ski Federation before the FIS council in Greece in their successful bid to host the 2023 world championships in Courchevel.
“It was pretty huge. I felt I pretty much had the whole of France on my shoulders,” she laughs. The Austrians [who had the rival bid] had plenty of people presenting.”
When the French turn came, ‘the only one who came out of the dark [onto the stage] was me. I hadn’t slept all night and I thought ‘Oh my god’. But I totally nailed it.”
For New Zealand Snow Sports chief executive Jan Shearer, Robinson’s victory has ‘”made a statement” and will have opened international eyes again – still no doubt blinking at New Zealand’s double Olympic medal triumph of snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and freeskier Nico Porteous in Pyeongchang, South Korea three years ago.
“Here’s a new star, a New Zealander. Where did that come from? How did that happen?” Shearer suggested European minds would be thinking.
“She is showing people anything is possible. We are not renowned as a skiing nation, but it’s reiterating we, as New Zealanders, just get out and do it.”
Shearer, a former Olympic silver medal-winning sailor with Leslie Egnot in the 470 class at the 1992 Games, praised the fact that while funding is challenging, Robinson has “taken the bit between her teeth and done this on her own”.
Robinson gets campaign funding from High Performance Sport NZ, but attracting funding for the snow disciplines is still difficult.
“What she’s done is pretty phenomenal. She’s obviously very driven and gutsy,” Shearer says.
“And it’s good for women too. What she’s doing is really challenging, physically and mentally and you’ve got to have enormous resilience and belief.”
Shearer suspects Robinson is good at compartmentalising her life.
“It’s like ‘now I’m skiing, I’m focused on that; now I’m at school and focused on that. Not everyone can do that.”
Shearer thinks Robinson might just be one of those rare cases where “all the ducks are lining up. You’ve got a super talented athlete, who has the mental skills, physical ability, resources, and family support, and a coach who’s come along they can work with.’’
The final word goes to Riegler.
“I was so happy for Alice,” she says. “It was a demonstration of power, skill, talent and self confidence. And we’ll see a lot more of her.”