February 13, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Bob Baum)—America vs. Austria, the ski opera set in the Italian Alps, had a twist _ in Act I.
Daron Rahlves didn't win. Neither did the other American star, Bode Miller, nor the Austrian trio of Michael Walchhofer, Fritz Strobl and Hermann Maier.
No, the first blow in America vs. Austria went to a Frenchman, Antoine Deneriaz.
But this is no one-act opera. The Austrians aren't ready to settle for Walchhofer's downhill silver medal, and the Americans aren't ready to concede Olympic skiing supremacy to the Austrian machine.
"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.
The cast assembles again Tuesday for the Alpine combined event, a slightly shorter downhill on the same mountain as Sunday's showcase race, followed by a pair of evening slalom runs. They return for the super-G on Saturday, then the giant slalom the next Monday and finally the slalom, the last Alpine event, on Feb. 25.
Miller won the silver medal in the combined in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and Austrian Benjamin Raich took the bronze, and they're back for a rematch.
In Sunday's downhill, Deneriaz beat Walchhofer by 72-hundreds of a second in 1 minute, 48.80 seconds. It was the biggest Olympic downhill margin since 1964, when Egon Zimmermann of Austria won by 0.74, and one of the biggest upsets.
Starting No. 30, the last of the top entrants, Deneriaz figured to be hurt by the ruts and bumps left by skiers before him.
And his record hardly hinted at success.
He had wrecked his left knee during a practice run 13 months ago, was ranked 38th in the World Cup standings and hadn't finished better than seventh in a downhill all season. The last of his three career World Cup wins was in 2003.
Walchhofer, meanwhile, was already accepting congratulations.
Miller had come closest to him and would finish fifth. Rahlves, Strobl and Maier had tried and failed. Norway's Kjetil-Andre Aamodt, who has more Alpine Olympic medals than anyone in history, finished fourth and injured his knee during the race, leaving his future in these games in doubt.
The downhill has provided surprises before _ 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 _ and Deneriaz was confident.
"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, cut close to the gate flags, kept his crouch consistently and was cleaner than anyone on the course's jumps.
"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!' Deneriaz said. "No one believed it could be true.
Certainly not Walchhofer.
"I was disappointed at first, he said, "but I understood that Deneriaz had a dream run.
Walchhofer's silver 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, and I had to cope with tremendous pressure, he said. "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.
"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.
MMiller 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 run 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.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press