St. Anton, Austria Feb. 7, 2001--Today was D-Day, or as they say auf Deutsch, Tag X. Every event and every medal is important at the World Championships, but the downhill is the king daddy of them all. For an Austrian there is quite possibly no greater achievement in Sport, especially when victory comes in the homeland. Consider this: In a poll last October, Franz Klammer was voted the most popular person in Austria. And that is 25 years after his Olympic win in Innsbruck.
The Austrians claimed their crown today, with "Old Timer" Hannes Trinkl claiming the gold over teammate Herman Maier. But unlike in the women's downhill, it was not an Austrian sweep today. German Florian Eckert celebrated his 22 birthday by charging from the 25th position to claim the bronze medal. Daron Rahlves, who spoiled the Austrian party last week by winning the super G, finished fifth.
Two things were apparent at today's race. First, these downhillers are nearly superhuman. As expected, the new snow and warm temperatures made for an extremely bumpy ride on an already harrowing course. Even the biggest and best of the racers looked like they were negotiating a minefield. Winning wasn't a matter of having a clean run, but more a matter of making the quickest recoveries. Trinkl executed one of the most critical turns entirely on his inside ski, and Rahlves was lucky to finish let alone finish 5th. He led through the top half of the course but lost the race with one major mistake that would have taken down a lesser skier, or at least broken his concentration. But Rahlves continues to prove his place with the big boys by staying upright and pushing himself right back to the edge.
The second thing that today proved, is that there is a reason older guys win the downhills. With the exception of Eckert (whose best until today was an 18th place), all the names atop the finish list are very familiar. The value of experience is especially apparent in tough conditions. Downhill demands not only the physical and tactical skills, but mental strategy. The body can react quickly but it is the mind that keeps you calm in a crisis moment, or decides when to take a chance, or when to simply hang on. Its' the mind that keeps you calm in the start even while you hear helicopters swooping in to take away the racer in front of you. This downhill, especially with the conditions, was not a place for the inexperienced
When the World Championships team was first announced, I was surprised that one young racer was not on the team. That was 20-year old Marco Sullivan, who had had spectacular Nor Am victories (beating the entire Canadian World Cup team), earlier this season. Having been away from the reality of World Cup downhill too long, I wondered why it wouldn't be a good idea to bring him here to gain experience. It turns out, Sullivan was offered a spot on the team but turned it down. He opted instead to race two Nor Am races in Snowbasin to prepare for the World Cups immediately following. Standing in the finish today, watching the wrecks and recoveries, I realized that Sullivan is one smart kid. And he'll probably make one helluva downhiller.
After today's downhill, the competitions switched gears for the women's night slalom. The challenge for the downhillers was to keep patient yet energized through days of delays, then to cope with the eerie solitude at the top of their course. The slalom skiers have an entirely different challenge. They must try to calm their nerves beneath the bright lights and in front of the roaring crowd. Like in the downhill, course conditions are a major factor in the race, and already in the first run there is a high rate of attrition. Among those was Sarah Shleper , a top medal hope for the Americans. A dazed Shleper exited the course halfway down and will not have a second run. Kristina Koznick was clearly disappointed with her first run, but sits within striking distance in fourth, just behind the favoritte Janica Kostelic.
Looking ahead, the men's GS is tomorrow. Of the two top Americans, one-- Bode Miller--left town today, and another--Erik Schlopy-arrived. Miller is headed home with a knee injury from his crash in the Combined downhill, and Schlopy was keeping his distance from the circus scene in St. Anton.