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St. Anton, Austria Feb. 6, 2001–If you ever wanted to know what makes downhill racing so difficult, today was a case study. First was the women’s race, at 10:30 in the morning. Typically in downhill, the top racers– who get to pick their start positions–pick high numbers, hoping the course will speed up as the track gets skied in. A higher number also offers the opportunity to find out how the course is running. Essentially the first racers are used as guinea pigs. Today, however, the top racers picked lower numbers, the theory being that all the wet, new snow from the weekend storm would deteriorate as the race progressed, and makes the track slower. The top girls were lumped together from 8-13.
Those probably would have been good picks, had the weather stayed the same. The race started under bright blue skies for the first two racers, an Italian and a young unheralded Austrian, Selina Heregger. Then racer number three Emily Brydon fell, and caused a long course hold. In the meantime, thin layers of high clouds moved under the sun. By the time the race resumed, the light was completely flat, and the course rough. None could touch Heregger’s time, including Isolde Kostner and Megan Gerety both top contenders in training. The light had just started to brighten when Austrian favorite Renate Goetschl came down to eke the lead by 3 hundreths of a second. Conditions continued to improve until Michaela Dorfmeister came down¿a little looser and a little smoother¿to take the lead from Goetschl.
The stage was set for American Kirsten Clark, winner of the Combined Downhill, to make her mark. Her bib, number 30, had seemed an unlucky draw before the race, but now seemed perfect. While the sun made the visibility better, however, it made the snow good and soft. So, though Clark led through the first three split times, she plowed through soft snow on the final critical turn off the steeps and ended up a disappointing 12th place. That’s downhill, and Clark shrugged it off like the champ that she will soon be. Still, it was a tough day for the Americans. Gerety had to essentially ski blind, Jonna Mendes got bounced around and finished near Gerety and Caroline Lalive came out firing and went down in flames halfway down the course.
But things could have been worse, and they were in the Men’s Combined downhill run right after the Women’s downhill. Again, the new snow made for tricky, rough conditions and many a slalom skier did not look happy to be hanging on for life. In fact, the downhillers didn’t make it look easy either. Ed Podivinsky, who had the slalom race of his life, was out of the race when his ski bounced off his foot near the top of the course. First out for the Americans was Casey Puckett who caught an edge early in his run and had a spectacular high-flying crash, landing relatively unscathed. Bode Miller, in fourth after the Combined slalom, had an even harder fall in every way. Not only were his very realistic medal hopes dashed, but his body appeared to be fairly beaten as well, as he gingerly was pulled from the fencing. Sadly Miller is on his way home, with an apparent knee injury. The one racer who looked completely comfortable was the winner, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Mr. rock-solid. For tomorrow’s special downhill, the Austrians are already grumbling, because it appears that the race will be run from the combined start. For some reason they contend that a shortened course will be a disadvantage for them. Hmmmm. At any rate, Rahlves is definitely perceived as a threat. He’s loose, he’s happy, and he’s already got a gold medal in his pocket. That scares the hell out of the competition. Nobody is willing to make predictions for this race, given the radical difference in conditions from training to race day. Aamodt has the confidence of his combined win, Rahlves is riding high from his super G win, and the Austrians? Despite their protestations, they’ll be out for blood and honor no matter how long the course.
For tomorrow it’s another double race day to get the competitions back on schedule. The men’s downhill is at 10:30am and the women’s night slalom starts at 5:30pm. Americans Kristina Koznick and Sarah Shleper (2nd and 4th respectively in the last World Cup slalom) looked cool and calm today in their final training session. The other American to watch closely is the ever-charging, 5-event Caroline Lalive. She’ll have to shrug off falls in the past three events. If she can do that, her slalom is right on right now.