Austrians rule podium in Winternational slalom
The Aspen Times
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado – Kathrin Zettel and Marlies Schild fell flat in Finland. On Sunday afternoon in Aspen, the Austrian stars were on top of the world.
Little more than two weeks after failing to finish their first runs in the season-opening slalom in Levi, the duo overwhelmed a deep, accomplished field at Aspen Winternational. Zettel, a technical specialist who took second in Saturday’s giant slalom, produced Sunday’s fastest first and second slalom runs to claim the crown ‹ her first in the discipline since January 2010.
“I was so happy when I see the green light in the finish. I never thought I could do this thing today,” Zettel said. “I think I was relaxed after yesterday. It gives me a lot of, like dancing, good feelings. It worked really good today.”
The 26-year-old’s combined time of 1 minute, 42.46 seconds was 0.67 better than Schild, who was bidding for a 34th slalom title – a mark that would’ve tied her with Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider for the most in history.
No one else came close on another balmy, cloudless day in the Roaring Fork Valley. While she followed up her impressive GS victory by securing another podium finish – her third in four races this season – Slovenian standout Tina Maze was 1.81 seconds behind Zettel.
“Aspen is so great, such a great place for me,” said Zettel, who logged six podium finishes in nine races on Aspen Mountain from 2006 through 2009. “I’m happy for the team. Marlies, she’s quite strong, and we always push together in training. It’s good for all of us. We have world championships in Austria [in February], so that’s good signs.”
Vail sensation Mikaela Shiffrin also hopes this weekend is a preview of things to come.
One day after a surprise ninth-place finish in GS – a result she deemed “a big breakthrough” – the 17-year-old Burke Mountain Academy (Vt.) senior showcased the flawless form and unwavering poise that have generated praise and made her an instant success on the sport’s grandest stage.
The fan favorite – particularly because of the absence of Lindsey Vonn, who skipped the race to prepare for next week’s demanding slate in Lake Louise, Alberta – improved from 10th to seventh place in Run 2, thanks in large part to near-flawless execution on the bottom section.
The result was Shiffrin’s sixth career top 10 in 20 World Cup starts. She was eighth in slalom here in November 2011.
“I felt good about the first run, but I didn’t have the rhythm I wanted,” Shiffrin said. “But once again, it was one of those runs where I wanted to keep going, and that’s kind of the feeling I’m looking for.
“Even that [second run], I didn’t make every turn perfect, but it felt good, and I felt happy. I was smiling my way down the course, and it’s just something that makes me want to do it again.”
Shiffrin flirted with a potential podium finish for a stretch. Soon after capturing the lead with a time of 1:45.52, she anxiously watched as three skiers failed to unseat her – including Austria’s Michaela Kirchgasser and Finland’s Tanja Poutiainen, who were just 0.06 off Shiffrin’s pace.
German Lena Duerr finally topped Shiffrin, and then Maria Hoefl-Riesch dropped the teenager to third with a blazing second run – an effort that helped Hoefl-Riesch atone for a disappointing showing Saturday in which she clipped a gate with her hand and failed to finish her first run.
Swede Maria Pietilae-Holmner, last year’s slalom runner-up here, followed and knocked Shiffrin out of podium position with three skiers remaining.
“I’m very happy,” Shiffrin said. “With the GS result yesterday and today getting another top 10, it’s very surreal. I mean, success comes in all shapes and sizes, and I’m so happy that I’m figuring out what I need to do to put my best skiing out there.”
Maze saved her best for last. She amassed a 0.75-second advantage over Hoefl-Riesch after the first split and hung on in a dramatic race against the clock, surging across the finish to best the former overall champion’s time by 0.12.
If Schild was feeling the pressure, she certainly didn’t show it. The 31-year-old, who was disqualified in the first run Saturday, wowed the crowd – and momentarily silenced announcers Chris Davenport and Kaylin Richardson, a former U.S. Ski Team member – by confidently knifing down the steep, rutted course, picking up time with virtually every polished turn. She assumed the lead by 1.14 seconds.
It wasn’t enough, however, to top Zettel, who made one awe-inspiring final statement. A 0.09 advantage after the first split soon ballooned to 0.67.
She attacked the final pitch, erasing any doubt.
The scene was reminiscent of 2006 and 2007, when Austria had at least two skiers finish in the top three in four consecutive races.
“After the finish, it was so incredible,” said Zettel, who flashed a disbelieving grin as she spotted the leaderboard while skidding to a stop.
“I did not realize what was happening in the finish [with Schild]. I was focused on myself. I was really nervous.
“Second and first, what [more] do you want? This year I’m so healthy and fit again, and it seems to be so much easier.”
The same could be said of Maze, who has emerged as an overall contender after finishing in the top four in the season’s first four races, including two victories.
“I’m ready for racing, I feel free, my skis are well, and my team is great,” said the 29-year-old, who had never reached the podium in an U.S. race before this weekend. “I’ve been in many years on the World Cup. It’s time to show who I am, ski the way I can, and that’s the only thing I want to do now.”
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