Men's Downhill: Beaver Creek, Colorado
The Herminator terminated the men's field to take the World Championship downhill gold Saturday with a ski run more spectacular than the Olympic downhill crash that made Hermann Maier a household name.
Maier is ski racing's last action hero, and the 27-year-old former brick layer from Flachau, Austria, lived up to the marquee status with a blistering run that was perfect in its imperfection.
With his namesake Arnold Schwarzenegger watching from the grandstands, there were no true lies in Maier's commando attack on the Birds of Prey downhill course that saw the US Ski Team's dream of a podium finish foiled by late- race snow and winds.
Skiing like a man possessed, Maier bashed through gates like he was racing the giant slalom instead of skiing's high-speed form of Russian roulette. He pulled the trigger and flung himself off the jumps with smooth abandon. As he flew down the mountain, Maier was exorcising the ghost of Nagano past.
After tying in Tuesday's super-G, Maier was intent of finishing alone on the podium. And his wild run did just that, leaving the Birds of Prey battered and bruised, crossing the tape in one minute, 40.60 seconds.
Only Norway's Lasse Kjus could come close, finishing .31 seconds back to take the silver medal. Kjus had a textbook-perfect run, but it wasn't enough to beat Maier and his manic mania to win.
"I hate him," Kjus joked after Maier's frenetic run. "He skied like a crazy man up top. When I saw the tape of his run, it's no wonder he skied so fast and won. He's skiing really good. It's fun to watch him ski. It motivates me to try to beat him."
Try is the operative word. No one's beat him this week. Kjus managed to tie him in the super-G, but Maier stood alone on the Birds of Prey podium. Maier lauded Kjus's clean, smooth, powerful run that would have beat everyone anywhere, if only Maier wasn't on a mission.
"I didn't have a perfect run. Lasse had the perfect run," Maier said. "I was a little too fast on top. It was wild. I was so aggressive. I skied near the gates like it was a GS. To ski so near the gates is very dangerous. But I was thinking I can't make the same crash as Nagano twice. It's impossible."
Maier made headlines at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano last February when he went into orbit during the men's downhill. Reaching into the lower layers of the stratosphere after launching horizontally off a blind turn, Maier's crash was heard around the world.
Although he went on to win the GS and super-G gold medals, Maier's crash was what made ESPN's "play of the day."
Coming into the Vail Worlds, however, Maier is intent on making people remember him for his ski racing acumen rather than for his high-speed spills.
"This is my greatest medal," Maier said. "I was more relaxed today because I had a lot of pressure on me for the super-G. It's so wonderful to ski on this wonderful downhill course. It's very dangerous and it's a great downhill course."
Maier was simply unstoppable on the top of the course. Looking like Terrell Davis plowing through the Atlanta Falcons defensive line, Maier plowed his body through the gates that mark the 2,498-foot vertical drop of the Birds of Prey course.
Maier won the race on the top half of the course, where he posted the fastest speeds. Kjus was actually faster on the lower half of the course, but he couldn't make up the difference on Maier.
Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt was also solid on the top half of the course, but made one mistake in the middle section and finished third, .57 seconds off Maier's winning pace.
The strong Austrian team proved its worth by finishing 4-5-6. Italy's Kristian Ghedina, a winner here in 1997, couldn't manage better than eighth at 2.19 seconds back.
"It was very fast course today. I didn't ski as well as I wanted. I made a big mistake in the middle of the course which cost me," Ghedina said.
With Schwarzenegger and the Maier fan club cheering in the background, Maier put the exclamation point on his ski resume that he was looking for.
"My goal is to win three golds at Vail. But since I'm having so much fun, maybe I'll keep racing," Maier said.
The rest of the Worldexcept for a few dozen men ski racing this week hopes so.
Austrians Tie for Fastest Times
Here's a quick look at
who will be fighting for the men's title:
Austrians Tie for Fastest Times
Knauss, third in Tuesday's super-G, just .01 seconds off the winning pace set by Austrian Hermann Maier and Norway's Lasse Kjus, said the Birds of Prey downhill course is in excellent shape.
"It's totally different as you come down the course. On the top, it's a lot of ice and very steep. On the last part, it's smooth and gliding and jumps," said Knauss.
Italian Kristian Ghedina, who won a downhill here during the Birds of Prey inaugural in 1997, had the 3rd fastest time at .01 seconds back. Austrian Hermann Maier was 4th fastest at .35 seconds back.
"It was very fast. I had a very fast ski today," said Maier, who's stronger in the super-G than the downhill, but could perform well on the Birds of Prey course in Saturday's men's downhill. "I'm a bit nervous, very nervous."
Thursday's training run on the Birds of Prey downhill course was key to several teams looking to finalize their four-man rosters for the downhill, which will be one of the highlights of the two-week worlds at Vail that continue through Feb. 14.
The competition was especially keen on the Austrian team. Coming into training, the Austrian team coaches said Maier, Knauss and Werner Franz had secured a place on the worlds' roster. The final position went to Eberharter after his strong run.
Puckett Tuckin' It
"Most of my focus is on the combined, so to be right in there in the real downhill is pretty cool," Puckett said after his surprising run. "The course is in great condition, so the start position didn't matter so much. My coach told me I had to beat Wisi by a lot to make the team, so my game plan was to attack."
Betschart finished 44th at 4.33 seconds back. Puckett's splits reveal he made up time in the treacherous steep middle section of the Birds of Prey course.
"On the top part of the course I gained a lot of speed going into the steep pitch. After that I was just basically hanging on. Everything was coming at me so fast. I was just reacting at that point," Puckett said, who grew up in Crested Butte, CO.
Puckett said he's going to skip Friday's final day of training because "I have the course nailed."
Vail's Chad Fleischer, fourth in Wednesday's training run, skied strong again to 15th at 1.44 seconds back.
The men's downhill is scheduled for Saturday, February 6 at 11am local time.
Rzehak Fastest in Training
Coming into the Vail worlds, the US Ski Team veteran is on a tear. He had a breakthrough run in Tuesday's super-G, posting his first career top-10 result with a strong sixth-place just .28 seconds out of first. On Wednesday, with the men skiing the notorious Birds of Prey downhill course at near race speed, Fleischer's roll continued as he finished with the 4th best time.
Austrian Peter Rzehak was first in 1 minute, 42.22 seconds, with Fleischer crossing the line at 1:42.73. Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt had the 2nd fastest time .21 back, and Stefan Eberharter was 3rd fastest at .45 back. American Daron Rahlves was ninth at 1:43.22 while Casey Puckett, who crashed out of Tuesday's super-G, was 17th in training at 1:43.90.
The first of three days of men's downhill training was delayed for about 1.5 hours due to high winds high on Beaver Creek Mountain. On the opening day of training, skiers typically ski a little slower as they pick out their lines and get a feel for the course. Leading up to Saturday's downhill, the pace will pick up Thursday and Friday, with the racers pushing race speeds on the final day of training.
Andrew Hood, Mountain Zone Correspondent
[Mountain Zone Home] [Ski Home]