St. Anton, Austria Feb. 8, 2001
Remember the part about Kjetil Andre Aamodt sitting out the downhill to concentrate on the technical events? Well, it worked. He didn't quite manage the gold in today's GS, but settled on silver for his 13th medal and second of these Championships. "Without dropping out yesterday in the downhill, I would not have this medal today. It's a priority I had to make," said Aamodt. At a certain point you have to figure this guy knows a thing or two about peaking for big events.
The gold went to Switzerland's Michael Von Gruenigen, who tied for fourth with Maier on the first run. France's Frederic Covili nabbed the bronze and Maier had to settle for fourth. The race had everything you need for international excitement: Enough Austrians in the hunt to keep the fans boisterous, the triumph of two favorites, an in-your-face medal for the French (the Austrians typically sit on their hands for French racers), and great performances by underdogs. Italy's Roberto Alessandro came from the 23rd start to finish 3rd on the first run, and his teammate Massilmiliano Blardone's second run moved him from 14th to 5th. Unfortunately, none of the excitement was reserved for the American fans, as Erik Schlopy, with the coveted number 1 bib, went too straight and skied out before the mid-point. "I'm not used to setting my own track, but I guess I should get used to it."
For the second race in a row the Austrians were shut out of the medals, giving the rest of the world a chance to catch up. Coming in to today's race, Austria had as many medals as all the other nations combined. Not only was Austria shut out, but the Herminator ended these Championships with no gold medal. That hasn't happened for a couple of years.
The mood amongst the Americans has undergone a significant southward change. The high after Rahlves win was eroded by near misses (Gerety's 4th and Rahlves 5th), injuries (Miller and Lalive) and bad luck (Shleper and Schlopys' first run DNF's). At this point, with two events left, no Americans have a shot at their specialties. The top contender in GS is Shleper, who has one podium in that event. With Miller out our top slalom skier is Schlopy. Although Schlopy believes his long term potential is best in slalom, his chances aren't great with a start position around 20. So, the ebullient, confident group that arrived in St. Anton is subdued.
It's always tough at big events not to get caught up in the team mentality. In good times, athletes can catch the momentum and surprise even themselves with top performances. But in bad times, the tendency is to make the disappointments of the entire team your own. Some individuals have been able to keep things in perspective. Schlopy, given his time away from the team and methodical comeback is well-versed at keeping his attitude in check. After exiting the course before the mid-point, he was disappointed at wasting his golden opportunity. But he looks at his career as a work in progress. "If it weren't for all the expectations around me I wouldn't be so disappointed. Until I am the best in the world, I look at every race as training." So it was just a really bad training day. It takes more discipline and maturity to think that way than to get upset, but maintaining that mentality is a tall order when medals are at stake.
The biggest row so far is over course preparation, with the FIS and the organizers arguing over whose fault it was that the women's slalom turned in to such a disaster. The course deteriorated so badly that some coaches of later racers were pulling them from the competition for safety reasons. The immediate remedy for the situation seems to be total annihilation of the hill in preparation for the men's event. Presumably there is a master plan at work that will explain itself overnight, but at the moment, the entire hill has been completely churned under by snowcats. That ought to keep both sides quiet.
Anja Paerson won the battle in last night's slalom, and gave credit to a visitor in the finish. Ingemar Stenmark, who hails form her hometown of Tarnaby was watching. "Whenever he is around I have very big ears. I learn a lot from him."
The biggest surprise so far was undoubtedly the slalom bronze by Norwegian Hedda Berntsen. The 25-year old didn't start skiing until 13, and first raced at 17. She took up racing in earnest after three years at Middlebury College, where she was not a top racer. Nonetheless she credits her alpine success to Middlebury coach Mark Smith. "When I first got there, I really sucked." From Middlebury she went to the University of Trondheim. Along the way she joined the Norwegian freestyle team, then won the Telemark World Championships and finally, fully turned her attention to Alpine skiing. For the record, she nolonger sucks.