Slalom Skiers Race for Live Reindeer Prize

World Cup heads to Levi, Finland, for first slalom race of 2017 season

Located 110 miles above the Arctic Circle, Levi, Finland, typically provides one of the earliest starts to the European ski season, making it a perennial stop for the White Circus since 2004. However, the winter sun hangs low in the sky so the World Cup races here often occur under the lights. The 1,066 feet of vertical drop of Levi's black slope will provide all the technical challenges needed in a World Cup slalom track when the women race on Saturday, November 12, with the men following Sunday.

Creating a worthy atmosphere for this tour stop, enthusiastic World Cup fans come from across Scandinavia to cheer slalom standouts like the youngest Olympic alpine medalist ever, Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR), or Frida Handsdotter (SWE), both of whom are defending overall slalom champions. The hometown Finns haven't had a 'local' to cheer for since Tanja Poutianen's (FIN) fourth-place finish at Levi in 2004.

Racer takes turn at World Cup

Henrik Kristoffersen will race to defend his slalom title at Levi. PHOTO: Courtesy of Henrik Kristoffersen

Awaiting the Levi winners at the podium are the most unusual prizes on the World Cup--Laplander reindeer. Though some may worry that this 'living' trophy could end up over a fireplace, ownership is in name only. In 2014, Levi winner Marcel Hirscher established a new tradition--naming the reindeer after his father. Last year's winner, Kristoffersen, followed Hirscher's lead and named his reindeer Lars.

Several men on Levi's start list bring potential momentum and overall World Cup points with them from Sölden: Kristoffersen (NOR), Hirscher (AUS), and Felix Neureuther (GER). Not only did they finish 1-2-3 in the overall slalom points in 2016, this was also their Levi podium positions when last facing each other in Lapland.

Awaiting the Levi winners at the podium are the most unusual prizes on the World Cup--Laplander reindeer.

Other local favorites will be joining their fight for podium steps: Andre Myhrer (SWE) finished last season with four top-10 finishes, just missing the third-place slalom Globe; Sebastian Foss-Solevaag (NOR) had five top-10 slalom results in 2016 and a fourth-place finish in his last appearance at Levi.

In the lady's contest, Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) is the one to beat with three slalom Globes, a fourth overall last year (despite an injury-interrupted season) and two podiums at Levi--third in 2013, first in 2014--by a significant margin. Local favorite Frida Handsdotter (SWE), and last year's overall slalom Globe winner, will be a worthy challenger to Shiffrin for the top step. That said, expect the podium race for the ladies to be tight with at least six other competitive women in the field, including Resi Stiegler (USA), who was 13th overall in last season's slalom championship.

Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won three slalom Globes, has twice stood on the podium at Levi. PHOTO: U.S. Ski Team

Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won three slalom Globes, has twice stood on the podium at Levi. PHOTO: U.S. Ski Team

What the course sets at Levi may lack in gravity-induced speed are compensated for by some challenging rhythm changes.

"The top of the course has multiple, aggressive rollers that course-setters use to try to trip up the racers," says Anna Goodman, Olympian and former Canadian Ski Team standout. There's almost always a tricky combination coming out of one of the steeper rolls, or a set with a major direction and distance change."

The rolling, flat upper section requires racers to generate their own speed. Scandinavians, who apparently possess a special Nordic gene, have mastered a technique that looks as much like skating as skiing--arms pumping, feet driving--producing a powerful gliding motion giving them a speed advantage over the flats.

Goodman says the key to the race is the transition from the flats to the steep middle section. "The break-over is much steeper than it looks on TV and one of the most abrupt transitions on the women's tour," she says. "If you miss the line here you struggle to get it back on the steep."

To Goodman's point, gravity forces racers to downshift here, moving hips and weight forward as the fall line drops sharply onto the pitch--an adjustment favoring the athletic among the field--and is critical in maintaining a high line and early pressure. Getting caught in the back seat rolling onto the pitch will result in being late and low for several turns, scrubbing speed and adding time on the clock.

Exiting the pitch, the lower section changes rhythm once again with the added complexities of flushes and hairpins. After the final roll the terrain gradually flattens, making racers generate their own speed, skating and poling through the last few gates and across the finish line.

Levi's uniqueness can produce upsets on the leaderboard, says Goodman. "Most years the track is icy and firm. And the visibility changes less over the course racing under the lights," she added. "These two things combine to even the playing field and allow racers from the back of the pack to attack."

Racers to Watch at Levi--Women
Note: Start lists are not finalized until the day before the race

Levi's Recent Top Three(2014)
Tina Maze, Slovenia: Defending champion, but announced her retirement in October
Frida Handsdotter, Sweden: Look for a repeat podium in Levi, first in the 2016 slalom overall
Kathrin Zettel, Austria: Was third last time at Levi, but retired at the end of 2015

Strong Contenders
Mikaela Shiffrin, USA: Finished 11th last time around, but wants another reindeer!
Veronika Velez-Zuzulova, Slovakia: Five top-five finishes in slalom, second in the 2016 slalom overall
Wendy Holdener, Switzerland: Had a strong 2016, also five top-fives, third in the slalom overall

Podium Wildcard Pick
Petra Vlhova, Slovakia: Has momentum from third at Sölden GS, was sixth in slalom overall in 2016

US Women in the Field
Mikaela Shiffrin, Vail, Colorado. Fourth start at Levi, 2012 third, 2013 first, 2014 11th
Resi Stiegler, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Fourth start at Levi, best finish 18th in 2014
Lila Lapanja, Incline Village, California. First start at Levi

Where to watch/record women's races: Saturday November 12th
Run 1: Streaming-NBC Sports 4:00am-5:00am ET
Run 2: Streaming-NBS Sports 7:00am-8:00am ET
Recorded-Universal HD 5:30pm-7:00pm ET

Racers to Watch at Levi--Men
Note: Start lists are not finalized until the day before the race

Levi's Returning Top-Three
Henrik Kristoffersen*, Norway: Defending champion in Levi and owns the 2016 slalom Globe
Marcel Hirscher, Austria: second in Levi last year, second in the overall slalom championship
Felix Neureuther, Germany: third in Levi, third in the overall slalom championship
*Kristoffersen is threatening to withdraw from Levi due to ongoing sponsor contract issues, potentially walking away from 100 World Cup points.

Strong Contenders
Andre Myhrer, Sweden: Carries momentum in from end of last season--four top-10 finishes
Mattias Hargin, Sweden: Knows the Levi track, has five top-10 finishes
Sebastian Foss-Solevaag, Norway: fourth last time out and could benefit from fan support

Podium Wildcard Pick
Alexis Pinturault, France: Sölden GS win momentum could carry over to slalom, he's athletic, has quick feet--that combo could land him on podium

US Men in the Field
David Chodounsky, Crested Butte, Colorado. Fourth start at Levi, best finish 26th in 2014
AJ Ginnis, Vouliagmeni, Greece. First start at Levi
Michael Ankeny, Deephaven, Minnesota. Second start at Levi, DNQ for second run in 2014
Mark Engel, Truckee, California. First World Cup start at Levi
Robby Kelley, Starsboro, Vermont. First start at Levi

Where to watch/record men's races:
Run 1: Streaming-NBC Sports 4:00am-5:00am ET
Run 2: Streaming-NBC Sports 7:00am-8:00am ET
Recorded-Universal HD 2:00pm-3:30pm ET