Austrians, Italian prevail in slalom
BEAVER CREEK – Most individuals wouldn’t be able to turn a steering wheel 63 times in less than a minute. Try it on skis.Some racers in Sunday’s Birds of Prey slalom didn’t even make it through the first half of the gates before the turns, the snow, the steep course or just the combination got the better of them.Austrian Benjamin Raich had an extremely successful run of events this past week – he fared better than anyone competing in all four disciplines – super-G, downhill, giant slalom and slalom. After mastering the slalom race that took many victims Sunday, Raich won the event with a time of 1 minute, 51.06 seconds and added to his season-to-date tally of 263 World Cup FIS points. Raich finished 28th in Friday’s downhill, 10th in Thursday’s SG and took third in GS Saturday before winning Sunday’s race, which was the first slalom of the World Cup season.
“Yes, I had a great weekend here … a very long weekend,” Raich said after the race Sunday. “I started in the downhill and super-G and I’m very happy that I made the first victory in slalom. I’m very strong in every discipline, but this changes every weekend. We have a long season before us. I have to think step-by-step and race-by-race. That’s important to me.”Raich is now third in the overall World Cup standings behind first-place, Bode Miller, and second-place, Hermann Maier.Italian Giorgio Rocca finished second with a time of 1:51.27 Sunday and Raich’s teammate, Rainer Schoenfelder, rounded out the podium with a time of 1:51.55. Coincidentally, representatives of the Austrian Federation laid the course for run No. 1 with a total of 64 gates and the Italian team put down the 63-gate course for run No. 2. Both courses were about 10 seconds longer than a typical slalom course, and judging by the attrition rate, extremely difficult. A total of 21 competitors DNF’ed in the first run, the first of which was starter No. 2, Bode Miller. Miller was about 12 seconds into the course when he took a turn too tightly, straddled a gate, and, without even a stumble, finished his race. Teammate Erik Schlopy, starting at No. 28, made a similar mistake and closed the curtain on his race.
Two competitors DNF’ed in the second run, and Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who would have finished in the top-10, was disqualified. Those who finished the race were clearly worn out, and even those who podiumed admitted their success came with the price of exhaustion.”It’s a difficult course,” Rocca said. “The top is very icy. I’m tired – happy and tired – and I want to go to Italy now.”Rocca said he hoped to podium in the remaining nine slalom races on the World Cup circuit this season. Schoenfelder is hoping to do the same, and will have to rest up before heading immediately to Val d’Isere, France, for the next World Cup stop this weekend. Schoenfelder said that the ice, variable snow, which was falling all day, and multitude of turns on both courses didn’t bother him so much as the length of the course.”The only difficult thing was the length of the course,” he said. “Because we are very high here, we have to breathe a lot. The first run was more turny, the second was faster, so the first one was more difficult because of the length of the race. I think we didn’t look very good (on) TV.”
Final Prey day and still standingLooking good on TV is apparently a priority for Schoenfelder, who is renowned for sporting various hair colors and styles, goofy hats and flashy facial piercings. After becoming the leader in run No. 1, which he ended up winning, Schoenfelder spent the duration of the run making faces for the cameras in the finish area. He wasn’t the only one to ham it up Sunday. Perhaps, it was due to the relief of the final race of the Birds of Prey or the fact that many younger, lesser-known racers competed in Sunday’s slalom, and thus had a rare shot at attention and a few seconds on film.Japanese racer Akira Sasaki, who ended up finishing 12th, threw a 180 before crossing the finish line in the first run and several other racers made a show of collapsing in the finish area and provoking cheers from the crowd.
“There’s definitely a good pitch up top where The Abyss is,” said Ted Ligety who – having just two weeks ago, joined the U.S. slalom team from the NorAm circuit – was the only American to finish the race. He tied for 15th with Johan Brolenius of Sweden with a time of 1:52.75. “The whole way, it doesn’t let up at all,” he said. “You get down to the bottom, and you’re like, ‘Oh, finish line … please!’ You’re definitely happy to get to the finish line. You can barely breathe and you’re just happy to still be standing up.”Austrians still on top
There is one group of skiers still standing and standing tall. There is a reason why the Austrians have led the Nation Cup for the past 10 years. In Sunday’s race, besides Raich’s and Schoenfelder’s podium finishes, Manfred Pranger finished seventh (1:52.32) and Mario Matt ninth (1:52.43). With Hermann Maier’s second-place GS finish behind Norwegian Lasse Kjus Saturday and a surprising win from Stephan Goergl and third-place from Mario Scheiber in Thursday’s super-G and Michael Walchhofer’s third-place in the downhill, the Austrians had at least four skiers finish in the top-10 in every race.”It was a great day for the Austrian Ski Team,” said Austrian coach Toni Giger. “It was a very difficult race with the change of snow. In some parts, it was a little bit icy and slick. In other parts, it was really grippy. But, it was a great day for the Austrian team.”The Austrians are now leading the overall Nation Cup with 2,762 points. The United States is next with 1,602 while Rocca’s result bumped the Italians into third with 898. Other top-10s in Sunday’s slalom included Finland’s Kalle Palander, who finished fourth in 1:51.70, Sweden’s Andre Myhrer fifth (1:52.18), Felix Neureuther of Germany in sixth (1:52.19), Slovenia’s Andrej Sporn (1:52.34) eighth and Stephane Tissot of France10th in 1:52.49.Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Colorado