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U.S.-Austria Rivalry Fizzles at the DH


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February 12, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—Poof! went the rivalry—at least for now. The Austrians had one medalist in Sunday’s Olympic downhill, and the Americans had none. The U.S. men will have to look to another day to prove they have the talent to battle mighty Austria for Olympic skiing supremacy.

“These Olympics aren’t over for us,” U.S. men’s coach Phil McNichol vowed. “We still have four events to go. We’ll get it done.”

No other event will carry the glitz, glamour and glory of the downhill, where the United States sent the one-two punch of Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller against the imposing Austrian trio of Michael Walchhofer, Fritz Strobl and Hermann Maier.

Walchhofer is the reigning World Cup and world downhill champion, Strobl the 2002 Olympic gold medalist and Maier the burly two-time Olympic gold medalist “Herminator.”

Walchhofer left with a medal, a silver for a distant second to Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz, who won by the largest margin in the Olympic downhill since 1964.

“I was disappointed at first,” Walchhofer said, “but I understood that Deneriaz had a dream run.”

It was the 56th Olympic Alpine medal for Austria, where the sport is brutally competitive and Walchhofer bore the burden of being his team’s best hope.

“This has been an extremely difficult race,” he said, “and I had to cope with tremendous pressure. … I didn’t ski relaxed enough like the run needed. That was the main mistake.”

The 31-year-old Strobl broke his left hand in a crash in Kitzbuehel, Austria, last month. Skiing with a brace on his hand, he was eighth.[pagebreak]“I did my best but could not ski any faster,” he said. “I have tried everything, but others were faster. There was something wrong with my skis. Something broke off the bottom of my ski. This is bad luck.”

Maier is back among the best after a motorcycle crash that left doctors wondering if he could walk again, let alone ski. Recovering from a flu, he finished sixth.

“My performance was not so bad,” he said. “But I had no power in my legs and that’s the reason I was not so fast.”

Miller was the top American, in fifth place, and pronounced himself at peace with his effort and ready for the combined event on Tuesday.

“At the start I was extremely fired up,” he said. “I felt like I had a really good chance of winning the race, and just a good chance of skiing the way that I want to ski, which is 100 percent with risk and 100 percent with execution.”

Rahlves was the biggest disappointment. He was fastest in the first training and so confident and comfortable that he skipped the second training run. Yet he was 10th, beaten by the three Austrians, among others. Although he had tried to portray it as just another race, he knew he had missed a great opportunity and looked forward to redemption in the super-G and giant slalom.

“I have two more races here at the Olympics,” he said. “I think I have way less pressure on myself.”

So the skiers move on to Tuesday’s combined _ a slightly shorter downhill on the same mountain as Sunday’s race followed by a pair of evening slalom runs. Miller won the silver medal and Austrian Benjamin Raich the bronze in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

Pretty much the same cast of characters from the downhill will be back at it in the super-G on Saturday. Then comes the giant slalom.

The finale is the slalom, where Raich and American Ted Ligety square off in the shadow of home favorite Giorgio Rocca of Italy.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press