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Downhill awakens alpine legends

Vail Daily/Preston UtleyBernard Russi, of Switzerland, speeds towards the finish line in the Legends Downhill race Thursday at the American Ski Classic at Golden Peak in Vail.
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VAIL – It’s in the blood.”You can laugh and make small talk,” Bernhard Russi said. “But once you are racing, it’s downhill.”The 57-year-old Russi was laughing with old friends Otto Tschudi, 56, and Walter Tresch, 57, Thursday in the finisher’s corral at Golden Peak.The 2005 Legend of Honor won the age-handicapped Legends Downhill at the American Ski Classic with his two-run combined time of 2 minutes, 18.22 seconds. Tschudi, of Norway, won silver in 2:19.97 and Tresch, a former teammate of Russi’s on the Swiss Ski Team, won bronze with a 2:20.34. Russi was not laughing at the top of the course before his second run. Since his first run time of 1:08.99 was the fastest, the Swiss skiing legend with 10 World Cup victories to his name had to wait to ski last. Pressure grew inside him, Russi said, as he watched the 14 other racers in the field go ahead of him. When he finally got into the horse gates for his final run, instincts took over. “We’re here for fun, but I think everybody gets nervous up there because it’s still in your blood,” he said. “You have it in your head. You have it in your blood. Suddenly, there are other rules.”The No. 1 rule in downhill, of course, is to go fast. In the women’s race, Canada’s Laurie Graham was the most successful at following that rule.For the eighth time, Graham won the women’s Legends Downhill. A slight bobble on a hard turn near the bottom of the course threw her off line a little, but she recovered to finish with a combined time of 1:54.68.Germany’s Micheala Gerg-Leitner, running second-to-last in front of Graham in the second run, was also thrown off her line on the same turn, but managed to stay upright to finish second in 1:56.62.Norway’s Toril Forland was third in 1:58.45.”It’s fun every year,” Graham said. “Because of my age, I have a benefit. But, I still try and ski well and see what the absolute times are.”Graham, like Russi, also said she had to push the nerves aside up top before pushing out of the gates for the final time.”You have to focus because it’s downhill,” she said. “You’ve got to focus and have in your brain where the course is going for safety. You joke, but then you gotta focus. All the men are up there and because I’ve been winning it so much, they’re going, ‘Oh look, it’s Laurie again.’ And they’re yacking and teasing me and I’m entertaining them. Then I’m going, ‘Laurie, focus here. Stop nattering with them.'”

The Swiss trioWhile posing for pictures in the finish corral, Russi and Tresch jokingly mentioned to Tschudi that all three of them on the podium represented a sweep for Switzerland. “They’re all saying three Swiss in the first three because I also have a Swiss passport,” Tschudi said, smiling.Tschudi, who has attended the Ski Classic every year since the event’s inception in 1983, also mentioned that in the 1988 Legend’s Downhill he finished first and that Russi won silver.”It’s a wonderful event,” Tschudi said. “It’s such a challenge to get here and try and do this again and pull it all together.”Seizing the momentSaturday evening, Russi will be inducted into the International Ski Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport of alpine skiing at a formal banquet.After retiring from the World Cup in 1978, the two-time Olympic medalist became the downhill technical expert for the International Ski Federation. He has since designed numerous Olympic and World Championship downhill courses. His greatest gift to the Vail Valley is the renowned Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek – one of the top-five downhills in the world.The downhill win Thursday, Russi said, was just one more thing to add to an already special weekend.”The Legend of Honor, I think it’s maybe one of the greatest things for me in skiing,” Russi said. “It’s not only a result. It’s also a little bit more. That makes me very happy.”Old ski racers never dieEveryone who competed Thursday, from 85-year-old Klaus Obermeyer to recently retired U.S. Ski Team member Jake Fiala, shared a common bond.That bond was the thrill of blasting down an icy course with danger – and possible bodily harm – lurking around each turn.”There’s nothing like it,” Forland said.Tschudi said the reason he’s come back every year is because the thrill is always the same. The addiction never resides.

“Everyone gets serious,” he said. “You can feel it. The big trick is you get back here and you ask yourself, ‘Should I do this anymore?’ And then you have a good result like this, and you’re spurred on for next year.”Added Forland, “I’m already looking forward to 2006.”Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com.Men’s results1. Bernhard Russi, SUI, 2:18.722. Otto Tschudi, NOR, 2:19.973. Walter Tresch, SUI, 2:20:344. Franz Klammer, AUT, 2:20.385. Phil Mahre, USA, 2:21.196. Franz Weber, AUT, 2:21.527. Paul Carson, CAN, 2:23.088. Steve Mahre, USA, 2:23.139. Chad Fleischer, USA, 2:25.3910. Felix Belczyk, CAN, 2:25.7411. Jake Fiala, USA, 2:26.0012. Finn Christian Jagge, NOR, 2:27.11

13. Patrick Ortleib, AUT, 2:27.5114. Moose Barrows, USA, 2:35.7315. Klaus Obermeyer, GER, 3:04.66Women’s results1. Laurie Graham, CAN, 1:54.682. Michaela Gerg-Leitner, GER, 1:56.623. Toril Forland, NOR, 1:58.454. Pernilla Wiberg, SWE, 1:58.515. Karen Percy-Lowe, CAN, 1:59.776. Marina Kiehl, GER, 2:06.197. Barbara Ferries-Henderson, USA, 2:11.558. Christa Kinshofer, GER, 2:16.40Vail, Colorado


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