February 12, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Howard Fendrich)—The gold medal was decided, or so everyone thought. Bode, The Herminator and the rest of Alpine skiing's big boys were already done for, and a few were even congratulating the apparent champ at the bottom of the hill.
And then, smooth as can be on a torn-up course, a racer given little chance to win did just that _ and by the largest margin of victory in an Olympic men's downhill in 42 years. Barely leaving a trail of spray, Antoine Deneriaz of France cut down the icy, sun-sparkled mountain Sunday to become the latest in a string of surprise champions in the sport's premier event.
``At the start I was thinking, 'Do it! Do it! I have to attack! Attack!' All the way, I felt like I was going fast. But when I saw my time, I thought, 'Grandiose!''' said Deneriaz, who finished in 1 minute, 48.80 seconds.
``No one,'' he said, ``believed it could be true.''
Least of all Austria's Michael Walchhofer.
After flailing through an early jump, the reigning World Cup downhill champion gathered himself and powered to an impressive time as the 10th man down the hill, then watched with delight while other favorites couldn't match him.
One by one they failed: two-time gold medalist Hermann Maier of Austria, then overall World Cup champion Bode Miller of the United States, then his teammate, popular pick Daron Rahlves.
``It would have taken a hurricane wind to get me into first,'' Miller said. ``The way Deneriaz skied today, he was pretty much untouchable.''[pagebreak]Deneriaz, 29, joined other unlikely Olympic downhill gold medalists: Leonhard Stock of Austria in 1980, Bill Johnson of the United States in 1984, Tommy Moe of the United States in 1994 and Jean-Luc Cretier of France in 1998.
Miller began his run brilliantly, but his errors piled up, particularly on two late turns, and he wound up fifth, a spot ahead of Maier. Defending Olympic champion Fritz Strobl, another Austrian, was eighth despite skiing with a broken hand. Rahlves placed 10th on a course he has won on before.
So much for that U.S.-Austria rivalry in the Alps, eh?
``We lost. It's disappointing,'' U.S. coach Phil McNichol said. ``We had two of the best guys in the race but came up a little short.''
Miller said he ``had a couple beers but then was in early'' Saturday night. Ever on his own terms, Miller skipped a chance to inspect the hill Sunday morning.
When Miller finished out of contention, Walchhofer permitted himself a smile.
``My heart stopped,'' the Austrian said.
Later, he pumped a fist.
Rahlves and others went over to chat and slap his back, even with dozens of skiers yet to compete. After all, Walchhofer's time surely was out of reach for the less-heralded waiting atop the mountain.
As starter No. 30, the last of the top entrants, Deneriaz was essentially an afterthought:
A talented skier, to be sure, but one facing a piste already chopped by all those earlier runs.
A guy who wrecked his left knee during a practice run 13 months ago.
Who ranks 38th in the World Cup standings.[pagebreak]Who hadn't finished better than seventh in a downhill all season.
Whose last of three career World Cup wins was in 2003.
Clearly, the Olympic title was Walchhofer's, right?
``I knew this course suited me. A lot of terrain, big turns,'' Deneriaz said. ``It's the kind of course I can be fast on.''
Deneriaz zoomed out of the gate, as if he had been shoved. He cut close to the gate flags, clipping several, kept his crouch consistently and was cleaner than anyone on the course's jumps. Only late did he slow with two slight bobbles. It didn't matter; his margin was monumental.
He beat Walchhofer by 0.72 seconds. If they had started together, Deneriaz would have finished roughly four SUV lengths ahead. Nobody else finished within a second of Deneriaz: Bronze medalist Bruno Kernen of Switzerland was 1.02 back.
Not since 1964, when Egon Zimmermann of Austtria won by 0.74, had someone dominated the world's best downhill skiers at a Winter Games as thoroughly as Deneriaz did.
``He absolutely came out of the gate with the pedal to the floor and skied that way the whole way,'' Miller said. ``He's one of those guys who has the right skills for this hill.''
When he was done, Deneriaz yelled and lifted his ski poles, extending his index fingers to the azure sky. Kernen hugged him, and Walchhofer gave him a pat on the chest. The new Olympic champion then removed his skis and fell back in the snow with legs and arms extended, looking like a kid about to make snow angels.
He thought back to that day at Chamonix, France, in January 2005 when he crashed after a big jump. His season was over, perhaps his career. And still, while lying on a stretcher, Deneriaz managed to joke to his coach that while a world championship later that year was out of the question, he was sure he would return to win Olympic gold in 2006.
In truth, Deneriaz never did relinquish hope of a comeback.
``Even at the hospital, I told myself: 'I have to fight, because the Olympics are only every four years. I can't give up,''' he said. ``There were some hard days. The first month was very difficult. But I kept telling myself: 'The Olympics are coming.'''
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press