Grange scores a surprise victory in slalom
Special to the Daily
BEAVER CREEK — Jean-Baptiste Grange flip-flopped his feelings about Beaver Creek on Sunday.
After tearing the ACL in his right knee here during a giant slalom race in 2009, the 30-year-old Frenchman charged to a gold medal in the men’s slalom, as Germany’s Fritz Dopfer and Felix Neureuther nabbed the silver and bronze in the finale of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
“This medal, it’s for sure the test of hard work,” Grange said after literally jumping up and down with joy on the podium during the medal ceremony. “I didn’t expect it today. It’s wonderful for me.”
Grange’s win was unexpected for everyone.
Large flakes of snow were falling by the time the second run of the final race of the World Championships kicked off. By that point, even though the top 60 athletes from the first run were supposed to continue racing, only 57 made it to run No. 2.
The remarkable attrition in the first run included a couple of race favorites — Olympic gold-medalist Mario Matt and his Austrian teammate Benni Raich — plus two of the four American starters, David Chodounsky and Will Brandenburg, all of whom fell victim to the extremely turny course set by the Norwegians.
The attrition in the second run was even more startling. The snow was sticky and heavy, falling with steadily increasing volume on a much faster, straighter course. Racers crossed the finish line wiping their goggles and a number of them didn’t make it. Italian Stefano Gross, who has been on the World Cup slalom podium three times this season, including a win in Adelboden, Switzerland, was charging and suddenly missed a gate. Other big names to befall the same fate included Alexis Pinturault and Jens Byggmark. But then came the biggest shocker.
After leading the first run by 0.28 seconds over Russia’s Alexander Khoroshilov, with more than eight-tenths of a second lead on the second run field, Austrian Marcel Hirscher appeared to have another medal in the bag … probably of the gold variety.
He launched out of the start gate in the second run as the snow came down and although his lead diminished, he still had it with just a few gates to go. Then, with the end in sight, he straddled a gate. The gold went to Grange, who was fifth after the first run and watched Khoroshilov and Swedes Mattias Hargin and Andre Myhrer, both of whom had skied faster first runs, cross the finish line behind him.
Hirscher said the snow was nearly blinding, his goggles were covered and it was a pure shock to straddle the gate.
“I thought it is nearly done, just 10 more gates to go,” Hirscher said after the race. “It’s not a secret that visibility wasn’t good. I have no idea how it was for the other athletes. In general, I have to say it was a super good World Championships for me. Two gold medals and one silver was way more than we were expecting. Definitely, it sucks so much today, but I keep on going. That is part of our sport.”
The gold was especially sweet for Grange since he had not made it onto a podium in nearly four years — since landing his first slalom title at Worlds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 2011. His career has been riddled by chronic back pain and several times — including three weeks ago after 20-something-place finishes in the last couple of World Cup races — he came close to retiring.
“I was far from the winner these two last traces. I was thinking maybe I will (stop racing). When I had bad pain in the back it was not so good. I was thinking it’s never going to be better. But you know the body evolves, and we are competitors so we want to achieve our goals. That’s what I did today.”
Dopfer, who finished 0.35 seconds behind Grange, said the silver medal was the highlight of his career to date. After originally racing on the Austrian team, Dopfer has been no stranger to the podium racing for the German team, landing three second places on the World Cup this season. But Dopfer has also suffered from back pain recently and was just happy to start the race on Sunday.
“One and a half weeks ago I had pretty serious back pain. It’s a victory just to stand here without any pain,” he said. “The second run was way different than the first. I knew at the start that I had to push myself to the limit. To have the silver medal, I cannot believe it.”
Dopfer’s teammate Neureuther was also thrilled to walk away with a medal, particularly after starting the second run more than a second off the pace. Having flashbacks of Friday’s giant slalom race, when Hirscher was also in the lead and after nabbing the win, pushed the German to fourth place.
“It was deja vu for me today,” said Neureuther, who leads Hirscher in the World Cup slalom standings. “When I crossed the finish line after the second run, I never would have thought this was enough for a podium. But you see how fast it goes in skiing. Somebody does a mistake and then you are up on the podium.”