Park City, Utah Feb. 21, 2002 (AP by Bob Baum)--At the end of the giant slalom, his last Olympic race, Stephan Eberharter collapsed at the finish area, lying motionless on his side in the snow.
The sense of relief was there for all to see.
``It is done,'' he thought.
One of Austria's greatest skiers finally had an Olympic gold medal, the lone prize that eluded him as he raced in the considerable shadow of his more flamboyant countryman, Hermann Maier.
``There was no more pressure. All the pressure was off me,'' Eberharter said. ``Finally I had gotten the gold. It was my last chance to get one, so it was really, really great.''
This was Eberharter's third medal of the Salt Lake City Games, an Olympic accomplishment that Maier has never managed. He won a bronze in the downhill and silver in the super giant slalom. Only five skiers have won three medals in a single Olympics, and just one other Austrian, Toni Sailer in 1956.
Eberharter is the first Austrian to win a total of four Olympic medals in his career.
``I'm not into statistics,'' he said. ``These are records, but what do they actually mean? Nothing, because they are only there to be beaten again.''
Before Salt Lake, Eberharter had just one Olympic medal, a bittersweet silver behind Maier in the giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Games.
He has won two world championships--the super giant slalom in 1991 and combined in 1999--and 15 World Cup races.
Eberharter, who turns 33 on Sunday, is having by far his greatest season with nine World Cup triumphs. He says he will ski one more winter, then decide whether to retire.
Eberharter came to Utah knowing that Maier would not be there because of severe injuries from a motorcycle accident. Yet the name still haunted him, and he faced the inevitable question about his rival at his post-race news conference.
``I think I've shown a good performance the last few years. Especially the Austrian people know that,'' Eberharter said. ``But we accept that Hermann Maier was one of the big racers of the last few years. He was the guy to beat. But at the moment I'm not thinking about him, because many racers have to go through injury, me as well.
``Yeah, I'm concentrating on myself and not on the other racers.''
Maier was glad to have a few days to regain control of his emotions following his silver medal performance in the Super G. Almost always cool and calm, he uncharacteristically lost his temper at the finish, tossing his helmet and ski poles in disgust because he knew that ``a stupid mistake'' had cost him the gold.
When he inspected the giant slalom course in the glorious sunshine of Thursday morning, he had accepted that two silver medals weren't bad. He was relaxed, he said, and all the pressure he had felt seemed to subside.
``It was just fun for me to ski the slope, and a very great day for me,'' he said.
In his first run, Eberharter seemed to be skiing a different, much simpler course than everyone else. With an incredibly tight line through the gates, he was 0.74 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, Massimiliano Blardone of Italy.
Even when American Bode Miller broke through with his great second run, 1 minute, 11.27 seconds, Eberharter still had a sizable margin as he pushed out of the starting gate. He resisted the temptation to ski cautiously.
``Sometimes I thought about the gold,'' he said, ``but then I said to myself, `Make a clear and a good run. Otherwise, you're not going to win.'''
Eberharter's second run was just 0.03 seconds slower than Miller's, and the Austrian finished a comfortable 0.88 seconds ahead of the American silver medalist. Miller thought Eberharter had skied one of the great giant slaloms in history.
``I don't think anybody could have beaten him today,'' Miller said.
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press