Strobl startlingly hits top in downhill

Austria's non-favorite skies to 1st gold medal

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 11, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

OGDEN, Utah - Everyone expected an Austrian skier to win the Olympic men's downhill yesterday.

It's just that no one expected it to be Fritz Strobl.

Often overlooked thanks to the long shadows cast by famous teammates Stephan Eberharter and Hermann Maier, Strobl skied his best when it mattered most, breezing down "Attacking Grizzly" in 1 minute, 39.13 seconds to capture the gold medal before a crowd of more than 25,000.

In doing so, Strobl, a 29-year-old police officer from Gerlamoos, Austria, became the first Olympic downhill champion from that country since Patrick Ortlieb in 1992.

"I knew that, God willing and with a bit of luck, I would be really fast," Strobl said. "I was a lot more nervous after the run than before."

Strobl's time over the 1.9-mile course was surprising only because he was faster than Eberharter, the big favorite coming into the games because he won nine World Cup events this season. But a few mistakes early cost Eberharter just a fraction of a second, and with a time of 1:39.41, he had to settle for the bronze. Norway's Lasse Kjus snagged the silver, finishing 0.22 of a second behind Strobl at 1:39.35.

"It wasn't my run," said Eberharter, who is still a favorite in the super-G and a medal contender in the giant slalom. "I made two or three mistakes, particularly coming into the final wall. There are plenty of races yet to collect medals, so it's not over."

It was an up-and-down day for American skiers. Daron Rahlves, considered a serious threat to win a medal, made an early error and went some 20 feet in the air off the first jump, slowing him considerably. He never really recovered, finishing 16th with a time of 1:40.84.

"I'm kind of licking my wounds right now," said Rahlves, from Sugar Bowl, Calif. "I pushed a little too hard coming off the first hill. I felt good today, but I made some mistakes. It's tough to swallow."

On the flip side, American Marco Sullivan surprised just about everyone, including himself, flying down the hill aggressively to finish in ninth place with a time of 1:40.37. Sullivan, who pumped his fist several times after getting a big roar from the crowd, couldn't have been happier.

"It felt really awesome to have the crowd cheering for me like that," said Sullivan, another Californian. "When I was getting ready for my run, everyone was going crazy, and I just got really fired up."

Sullivan's run was plenty impressive, but even more so considering he did it only 10 days after separating a shoulder during a crash in training.

"I couldn't feel it at all," said Sullivan, 21. "Way too much adrenaline to worry about that. Hopefully, this will be a start of something big for me."

"I was really stoked for Marco," Rahlves said. "He looked so smooth out there. He's going to be around for a while."

Strobl has already been around and back. He finished 11th in the downhill in Nagano, Japan, and was seventh in the World Cup standings in 2000. But none of it quite compared to the feelings he experienced yesterday. After winning his first medal in major competition, he rushed to call his wife, Bettina, and his 4-year-old son, Mario, back in Austria. He tried to reach his parents, but could only get their answering machine.

"Hopefully, they're out partying already," Strobl said.

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