U.S. reaches new peaks in alpining

Looking nothing like themselves, Austrian skiiers are green while the podiums have a distinct red, white and blue hue

February 23, 2010|By Chris Dufresne | Tribune Olympic Bureau

WHISTLER, British Columbia - Based on Olympic Alpine results so far, Austria has to be flat, like Kansas.

The country's strengths are likely table tennis or microbrewing - it can't be Alpine skiing.

As the Vancouver Games enter their last week, Austria's manly ski men have yet to earn a medal. They'll get their next chance in the men's giant slalom Tuesday at Whistler Creekside. With any luck, 45 guys will fall down and Austria can sneak in for the bronze.

The women have two medals - the same number as one American: Julia Mancuso, who hadn't finished top-three in a race that mattered in two years.

OK, enough bashing from a rah-rah American jingoist.

Let's cut straight to the Austrian publication "Kleine Zeitung," which ran a photo of four of its top Alpiners - Benjamin Raich, Michael Walchhofer, Georg Streitberger and Mario Scheiber. None finished higher than 14th in the men's super giant slalom. The caption: "Failure No. 1, 2, 3, 4."

Words like "nightmare" and "debacle" are being tossed around like Austrians in speed races on Whistler Mountain.

"A bit of criticism is fine," said Raich, who won double gold in Turin, Italy, but has finished fifth and 14th in his two races at Whistler. "That kind of pressure can do some good."

Austrians have one question for Raich: "When?"

Andrea Fischbacher restored some order when she won Saturday's super-G, and afterward she said she doesn't read the papers.

Is it possible Uncle Slam has finally cracked the secret Austrian ski code?

Four years ago in Italy, Austria barely strudeled a gate in winning 14 Alpine medals (four gold, five silver, five bronze) to the United States' two.

At the end of the Turin Games, the United States handed its pre-Olympic motto "Best in the World" back to its rightful owner.

With six Alpine events down in Whistler and four to go, America has eight medals to Austria's two.

Instant armchair-lift analysis: What's happening in Whistler is probably a combination of next-to-home cooking, talent, stepping up, karma, mojo and luck.

Austria was awesome in Italy, but everything that could have gone wrong for America four years ago did.

Medal hopeful Lindsey Kildow, before she married Thomas Vonn, probably lost two medals when she crashed in a training run two days before the downhill.

Bode Miller, who was supposed to win five medals, took a bagel. As boorishly as he acted, though, Miller skied well enough to win a couple. He missed bronze in downhill by .11 and was leading the combined by .97 when he was disqualified for hooking a gate. It required instant replay to prove he missed it.

Miller loves to chant the mantra about the fine line that separates goat from glory.

"There's a huge element of luck involved," he says of his sport.

Miller's luck in Whistler has been tremendous - he has three medals to prove it. He won bronze in downhill this time by .12, ahead of Scheiber.

Miller earned the silver in super-G, finishing a mere .05 ahead of fourth-place Italian finisher Werner Heel.

In Sunday's combined victory, Miller actually completed a slalom, which happens about twice a year.

"They are seizing their moment," U.S. Ski and Snowboard CEO Bill Marolt explained. "It's carpediem. Today's the day I'm going to be great. They're doing it."

Add to that: Vonn didn't crash in training this Olympics and has two medals. Mancuso, the defending gold medalist in giant slalom, has won silver medals on snow that reminds her of California conditions home in Squaw Valley.

"I think they're playing off each other," Marolt said. "One has success, and it sort of challenges the other."

Save for rookie Andrew Weibrecht, who scored a bronze in the super-G, these are the same top guns America took to Turin.

The U.S. has obviously caught Austria in transition. Alpine Nation recently retired the bibs of two of its all-time greats, Hermann Maier and Renate Goetschl. They took six Olympic medals to the farm.

Nicole Hosp, a former World Cup overall champion, tore ligaments early in the season and didn't make the trip. Same thing happened on the men's side with Christoph Gruber. Walchhoffer, the former downhill silver medalist, is 34 and appears to have lost his edge.

Austria has been taken to the wooden ski shed, but these Olympics aren't over. Alpine Nation still has 12 medal chances in four races. Raich is the defending Olympic champion in GS and slalom.

In the last two men's events of the 2006 Games, Austria won five of the six available medals and has 103 Alpine medals in its Winter Olympics history. The U.S. team hasn't even cracked 50.

To paraphrase a famous Austrian: "They'll be back."

cdufresne@tribune.com

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