Rahlves bearing down on U.S. goal

Alpine champ to battle tough Austrians, even tougher hill in `Grizzly'

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 10, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SNOWBASIN, Utah - American downhill skier Daron Rahlves had such a good year on the World Cup circuit last year, people occasionally recognized him on the street.

Unfortunately, that was in Austria, not the United States.

That could change if Rahlves, the reigning world alpine champion, has his way. Rahlves is the United States' best hope for an Olympic medal in downhill skiing, an event long considered one of the Winter Games' premier events. The race begins at 10 this morning.

To make a name for himself in the States, Rahlves will have to shock the world in the same way that American downhillers Bill Johnson and Tommy Moe did - by upsetting a talented group of Austrian skiers on one of the world's toughest downhills, "Attacking Grizzly."

"I've gone over the hill a hundred times in my head," Rahlves said. "It's a tough hill and really challenging. But I love tough hills because that's what really tests my ability."

In the downhill, skiers get only one shot at glory. It is about pure speed, and those who take the biggest risks then reap the biggest rewards. Play it safe, and you'll make it to the bottom. But you won't make it to the podium.

"There are certain risks you are going to take that are calculated for speed," said Rahlves, also a threat to win a medal in the super-G. "You never think about it; you just run on instincts and let it go."

Few skiers, if any, are as good at pushing the envelope as Austrian star Hermann Maier. Figured to be the outright favorite in the downhill in these Olympics, Maier was injured in a motorcycle accident last summer and is not competing.

"I'd much rather have him there," Rahlves told the Los Angeles Times recently. "There are a lot of other guys out there who are fast, but when people look at the sport, he's been so dominant for so long, he's sort of the icon of ski racing. There might be a little taken away from it. I don't think it's any less important. People say, "It's a better chance for you now.' ... I'd rather have the best guy there, so that stuff doesn't come up."

Even without Maier, it will be no easy task. Austrians Stephan Eberharter, Hannes Trinkl (downhill bronze in Nagano) and Fritz Strobel are considered the top three favorites. Eberharter, who took the super-G silver in Nagano, has won nine times on this season's World Cup tour.

The U.S. team will also have three other competitors with medal dreams competing in the downhill in Jakub Fiala, Scott Macartney and Marco Sullivan. Two-time Olympian Chad Fleischer would have been here, but he blew out his right knee Jan. 10 during a training crash.

The U.S. eyes will be focused on Rahlves, however. After a strong 2001 World Cup, he posted some disappointing results this season. Recent improvement, though, has made him confident.

"I have been building toward the end of the season," he said. "I feel like my skiing has been better than my results. I've had a good feeling on that hill. Things are falling into place and it's my time of the year."

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