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Tempered aggression key to downhill
Risks pay off for Austria's Fritz Strobl, who wins the men's downhill in 1:39.13.
By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 11, 2002
OGDEN, Utah -- The road seems long. The slope does not.
This would be the gist of a downhill skier's career, where the preparation is often in disproportion to the rewards.
Take, for instance, Austria's Fritz Strobl and Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt. Strobl covered the almost 2-mile men's downhill course in 99 seconds Sunday. So did Aamodt. Strobl won gold. Aamodt won nothing.
The difference? Strobl's exact time was 1:39.13. Aamodt's was 1:39.78. That means 6/10ths of a second separated first and fourth.
Picture yourself the morning after falling short of Olympic gold by about a half-second. Where, exactly, on the 2-mile slope did you go wrong? And how, exactly, do you get out of bed knowing you were a snap of a finger away from being an international star?
"You get one shot. That's it," said U.S. skier Scott Macartney, who placed 29th in 1:41.86. "There is 2/10ths of a second separating first and second today. Those 2/10ths can come anywhere on the course. So you can't afford to let up. You have to be giving 100 percent the whole way down."
The downhill is the equivalent of the 100-meter dash in the Summer Games. No ramps, no fancy tricks. Just the first skier down the hill.
Unlike the 100-meter dash, there is a wide range of variables in skiing. Miss the line you're aiming for in the snow and you find yourself far off-course. Take a little pressure off your skis and you find yourself airborne at an inopportune spot.
This is why the sport is filled with one-hit wonders. The last two Olympic champions -- Tommy Moe for the U.S. in 1994 and France's Jean-Luc Cretier in '98 -- had never won a World Cup downhill previously.
And neither has won since.
Austria's Stephan Eberharter came into Sunday's downhill as a five-time winner in eight World Cup events this season. He finished third. Norwegian Lasse Kjus won silver in 1:39.35. The trick to the downhill is finding the happy medium between aggressive and reckless.
The course at Snowbasin, nicknamed Grizzly, was particularly unforgiving to a skier who failed to maintain control.
With a steep fall out of the chute, skiers were going as fast as 75 mph in the first quarter-mile of the slope. With numerous wicked turns, the course was considered more favorable to technically proficient competitors.
American Daron Rahlves has had success on similar slopes and was considered a medal contender. But Rahlves made the mistake of going too hard into his first jump and sailed off course. He finished 16th.
"I'm really disappointed. I came out here to be the fastest guy on the mountain," Rahlves said. "But I didn't back off at all. I would have felt worse if I did something like that.
"I felt like I had a shot and didn't really do it. It was just a poor performance."
Rahlves, who has called downhill skiing the world's best drug, said he never got back into his rhythm after misjudging the first jump.
"He was being aggressive. He was putting it down the hill," Macartney said. "He made a couple of mistakes, but he skied aggressively. He just went a little too far. That's the fine line. You have to discover that for yourself. How much can you push it before you're slowing yourself down with your own mistakes?"
There is a matter of dignity involved in downhill events. Ski conservative and you can finish 10th with little applause. Go for broke and land in the netting and you're a hero.
It is not hyperbole to suggest downhill skiers take their lives into their hands. In the bleachers Sunday was 1984 Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson. Last year, Johnson returned to skiing in a farfetched attempt at a comeback.
In one of his first runs back, Johnson suffered severe head injuries in a crash. His family was immediately summoned to the hospital because doctors did not expect him to live.
Though he has made gradual improvement in recent months, Johnson has little memory of the past decade.
And, still, he talks of returning.
Though there were no serious falls Sunday, one U.S. skier suggested the course had its share of dangers. Marco Sullivan, the top U.S. finisher in ninth place, said Strobl's run was about as aggressive as a skier could get without risking his health.
"If you want to win," Strobl said, "you have to risk something.
"I did risk today."
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