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Olympics

France’s Clement Noel Crushes the Competition With Textbook Slalom Performance

Top American contender Luke Winters skied out during his first run, ending his medal hopes early in the event.

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On Feb. 16, viewers had the pleasure of seeing what French coach Fred Perrin called “Clement Noel, the best slalomer in the world.”

Watching Noel ski to Olympic gold on the “Ice River” at the Yanqing National Alpine Center was like watching an Olympic figure skater float across the ice at the Capitol Indoor Stadium in Beijing. Flashes of blue and red fell at his dancing feet while his upper body moved down the fall line with calm dexterity, a textbook performance of skiing’s most technical discipline executed on the world stage.

Clement NoelFrenchman Clement Noel skied flawlessly to win gold in men’s slalom at the National Alpine Ski Centre in Yanqing. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

He moved through each turn with such speed that he blew the rest of the field out of the water in his second run, pushing himself a second ahead to grab gold for France, the first in slalom since the Torino Games in 2006.

“I would say he deserved that gold,” said bronze-medalist Sebastian Foss-Solevaag of Norway.”He is the fastest slalom skier at the moment.” 

His peers may see him as the fastest slalom skier in the world, but fast training doesn’t always translate to races. In 2022, slalom has been any man’s game. Six different athletes have stood at the top of the World Cup podium, and at least 14 other men have occupied the two steps below. Noel has not been one of them since December 12th in Val d’Isere. 

As silver-medalist Johannes Strolz of Norway said in the post-race press conference, “You don’t have another chance other than going 100 percent. If you hold back a little bit, you will be punished immediately by the other guys.”

More: Follow SKI’s Full Coverage of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics 

But don’t call it a comeback. Noel has always been on top. Despite a disappointing January on the World Cup slalom circuit, the 24-year-old has a stellar record in the discipline. He has 16 slalom podiums to his name, nine of which are victories, and finished second overall in the slalom World Cup standings in 2019, 2020, and 2021. It was only a matter of time before two runs came together to form a golden opportunity for the Frenchman. 

“[The] Olympic Games is always stressful; it’s once every four years,” reflected Noel. “You have one race, around one minute and 40 seconds just to prove yourself and show your best skiing. But I was quite confident. It’s not like a World Cup race. Everyone pushes hard for the Olympics, so I had to do this too without asking too many questions.”

Fellow 24-year-old Luke Winters’s Olympic Games did not follow the same epic storyline. Rather than skiing to Olympic glory, the American skied out early in the first run, ending his medal bid before it started. 

Luke Winters
American Luke Winters skied out of his first slalom run, dashing his medal hopes. Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images

And Winters, when he skis clean, is fast enough to be in the mix with the rest of them. In the Val d’Isere 2019 slalom World Cup, Winters skied into second after his first run. He also has multiple top 15 World Cup finishes under his belt. A feat for a young man who consistently starts races from the back of the pack. 

Since being named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2019, Winters has been leading the charge in the U.S. men’s battle for slalom redemption, fighting to open up start spots or his teammates on the World Cup, and making a name for the discipline in the United States. Sure, Shiffrin has done so on the women’s side, but the men’s slalom team had fallen to the wayside for years. Winters started the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic slalom as the sole representative of his country.

Read More: U.S. Ski Team Announces Athletes Headed to 2022 Olympics in Beijing

“He won’t mind me saying so, but Luke was never supposed to be here,” wrote teammate, and close friend, River Radamus. “He wasn’t born with natural skiing talent. He didn’t come from a big ski family. Luke was born to dig ditches, but he just worked too damn hard at skiing.”

Winters still helps out with the family construction business in the off-season. Excavation (or as Radamus likes to call it, ditch-digging) is in Winter’s blood, but so is hard work and dedication to his craft. In the summer, that looks like blue-collar work. In the winter, that looks like slashing through slalom courses with the best in the world.

Winters said it best in 2020 after his first year on tour.  “People think it’s getting to my head because I ski well one run and don’t ski well in another run. It’s not. I think it’s just a matter of time.”