Petra Vlhova credits ‘huge’ change en route to Slovakia’s first Olympic slalom gold

Petra Vlhova of Team Slovakia wins the gold medal in the Olympic women's slalom event.
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BEIJING (AP) — Smiling. Laughing. Enjoying herself.

Petra Vlhova is like a different person following “something huge” that changed in her approach to skiing.

After becoming the first Slovakian to win the overall World Cup title last season following a grueling enter-every-race approach under previous coach Livio Magoni, Vlhova went one step further on Wednesday by winning gold in slalom for her country’s first-ever Olympic medal in Alpine skiing.

Meanwhile, her biggest rival, two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin, went out in the first run for her second straight race of the Beijing Games.

With the medal hanging around her neck, Vlhova pointed to a more relaxed approach under new coach Mauro Pini that provides more down time as one of the biggest reasons behind her success.

“Mauro gave me something huge, because he gave me smiles,” Vlhova said, adding that when she was tired over the last few seasons, she was not happy to ski.

“Now, every single day, even if I am tired, I am happy to be back on the snow,” she said. “Laughing a lot with the team. … Smile, enjoy the sport. … Just to have fun and ski. This was missing last years.”

It was also Slovakia’s first medal of the Beijing Games in any sport, earning Vlhova a note of congratulations from the country’s president, Zuzana Caputova.

“I think everyone are celebrating in Slovakia,” Vlhova said. “It’s something huge.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Lindsey Jacobellis wins Team USA’s first gold in fifth Winter Olympics

Vlhova, who already has clinched the World Cup slalom title, finished an unexpected 14th in the giant slalom on Monday and looked set for more disappointment when she completed the first slalom run down the Ice River course in eighth, 0.72 seconds behind leader Lena Dürr.

But last season’s overall World Cup champion made it up in the second run, with the gates set by Pini.

“Honestly, it was really difficult to be calm and focused on my skiing,” Vlhova said. “But I had a lot of power from my team. They trusted me, they believed in me and they repeated to me, ‘You are so strong. Just ski free. Enjoy and focus on your skiing, nothing else.’ They were always repeating this to me in between the two runs.

“I gave everything I had and at the end I am Olympic champion.”

Added Pini, who previously coached the Swiss men’s team then Lara Gut-Behrami and Tina Maze individually: “She left her heart on the course. That’s what I asked her to do. After that first run, there was nothing to lose. She had to be courageous and gutsy. I told her I want to see someone gutsy and with a lot of heart on that hill. And she did it. Incredible.”

The 26-year-old Vlhova rushed over to hug her teammates and coach after Dürr, the last starter in the second run, crossed the line in fourth place.

The 30-year-old Dürr burst into tears when she realized she had missed out on what would have been a first medal at a major championship.

Katharina Liensberger of Austria took silver, 0.08 behind Vlhova. She had seemed set to dominate the discipline after winning the World Cup and world championship slalom titles last year but has struggled this season with illness and also contracted the coronavirus in December.

“I wasn’t sure if I could make it after all these difficult situations,” Liensberger said. “I wasn’t 100-percent top fit.”

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Wendy Holdener of Switzerland finished 0.12 behind Vlhova to add bronze to the silver medal she won in the slalom at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Sara Hector looked set to continue an incredible resurgence by winning a second gold medal in three days, but the Olympic giant slalom champion fell with the finish line in sight and an advantage over Vlhova of almost half a second.

“Sport is sport, and anything can happen,” Hector said. “For sure it’s a little bit bitter now, but I’m super happy for the way I charged and did my best.”

When the race was over and Pini came down to the finish area he was screaming with delight before he even came to a stop. He described himself as “very, very, very, very, very, very happy” and said that feeling would last “tonight, tomorrow and for all next year, I’m sure.”

The only thing lacking for Vlhova was Shiffrin. Between them, the Slovakian (five victories) and the American (two) have won all seven World Cup slaloms this season.

“We’re sorry for the fans,” Pini said, “because a Petra-Shiffrin duel would be fun to watch.”

Remaining Women’s Alpine Schedule at the 2022 Winter Olympics

Event  Date/Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date/Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Super-G 2/10/22 10:00 PM 2/11/22 11:00 AM
Women’s Downhill 2/14/22 10:00 PM 2/15/22 11:00 AM
Women’s Combined (Downhill Race) 2/16/22 9:30 PM 2/17/22 10:30 AM
Women’s Combined (Slalom Race) 2/17/22 1:00 AM 2/17/22 2:00 PM
Team Event 2/18/22 10:00 PM 2/19/22 11:00 AM

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 Winter Olympics Schedule – How to watch every women’s event

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”