Can Gold Make Austria's Raich a Celebrity?

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February 20, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Erica Bulman)—Maybe Olympic gold will do what title after title, trophy after trophy couldn't: Make Benjamin Raich a star. The understated Austrian skied to victory Monday with two commanding runs in the giant slalom, then with an uncharacteristic splurge of emotion rolled around in the snow at the finish.

"I have a big weight that lifted off my heart, said Raich, 27, who is so anonymous internationally that he can publish his home address and phone number on his Web site. "Olympic victory was a goal I had long envisioned.

Raich's low-key persona and calm consistency have relegated him to the shadows cast by the circuit's flashier personalities. Yet the same qualities have helped him win two world championship titles and World Cup season trophies in the slalom and giant slalom, and he's leading the overall World Cup points race that headline-grabbing Bode Miller won last season.

On Monday, Raich climbed from fifth after the first of two giant slalom legs to first at the end, winning with an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 35 seconds. Joel Chenal of France won silver and Austria's Hermann Maier took bronze.

Before his giant slalom triumph, these games had been a bust for Raich: He couldn't crack a deep Austrian downhill squad, failed to finish the combined when he straddled a gate in the second leg seconds from victory, and finished far back in the super-G.

"Benji still has a lot in front of him and I have to try hard to stay with him, said Maier, perhaps the greatest skier from the greatest Alpine skiing nation. "But I'll watch him and if he slows down I'll catch him.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press