SCHLADMING, Austria – Aksel Lund Svindal was far ahead of his downhill competitors at worlds championships in every aspect – technically, physically and tactically.
Mastering a bumpy and icy course made more difficult by a light snowfall and low visibility, Svindal won the downhill title Saturday by a huge margin.
Other contenders ran into trouble on the 2-mile Planai course, especially on the steep, final pitch where skiers had to dig their edges in hardest just when their legs began to weaken.
“The game plan was to be pushing all the way down to the last pitch, than be tactical at two gates there then push hard again,” Svindal said. “It’s never perfect but I had a very good run. When I came down and I was fast I was happy because I definitely didn’t want to go up and do it again because I didn’t have any more (energy).”
Svindal clocked 2 minutes, 1.32 seconds to win by nearly half a second and secure his second world title in skiing’s signature event, having also won in Are, Sweden, in 2007.
Dominik Paris of Italy, who leads this season’s World Cup downhill standings by three points ahead of Svindal, took the silver medal, 0.46 behind, and David Poisson of France was a surprise third-place finisher.
With 2005 champion Bode Miller sitting out for the season recovering from knee surgery, the Americans failed to make an impact.
Less than 2 hours before the start of the race, Andrew Weibrecht posted the fastest time in an additional 50-second training run on the bottom part of the course. But he finished only 22nd in the race, 3.25 seconds behind Svindal, for the top U.S. result.
Miller, who attended the race, is expected back next season and plans to compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“He was one who always seemed to pull it through in these situations and it’s tough not having him,” said Marco Sullivan, who opened the season with a third-place result in Lake Louise. “But we saw in training and the past races we’ve all been skiing pretty well. We just have to make that jump to doing it in big events.”
Already a two-time overall champion, Svindal is having another standout World Cup season with four victories. But he started these championships with a disappointing bronze in a super-G that saw his teammate Kjetil Jansrud of Norway ruled out for up to nine months after injuring his left knee.
“For super-G I was the big favorite that everyone was talking about and in skiing you can’t just show up and get your medal. There’s just too much stuff you can’t control” Svindal said. “Even though it was not a bad day it was also mixed emotions with my one and only teammate getting injured and out for the season.
“I was really motivated to have a good race today. Crossing the finish in the world championships and leading by a second is a really good feeling,” added Svindal, who came down immediately before Paris and celebrated immediately, turning to all corners of the finish area to take in the entire crowd.
While Svindal was counting his medals — he now has 11 at major championship, more than halfway to the all-time record of 20 held by fellow Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt — the U.S. Ski Team was trying to determine what went wrong.
Sullivan was the first American starter. He was ahead of then leader Andrej Sporn at the fourth checkpoint when he lost his edge on a right turn, getting pushed off course into a barrier. He wasn’t injured and got right up and skied down to the finish.
Next up was Travis Ganong, who fell down on his side on the top portion of the course.
Steven Nyman was also on pace for a top-10 finish but he made a big mistake on the bottom pitch, letting his skis get turned perpendicular to the slope. When he reached the finish, he pounded one of his poles into the snow in frustration. He finished 25th, 3.79 behind.
By the time Weibrecht started with the No. 37 bib, a light headwind was blowing and he lost time throughout his run, then fell in the finish area and banged into the protective padding, getting up with his blonde beard covered in snow.
The U.S. team hired prized Austrian downhill coach Andi Evers for this season and improved technically but Nyman said the squad lacked fitness.
“The further down we went the more time we lost,” Nyman said. “There’s definitely some issues we got to address and it’s been that way in Wengen, in Kitzbuehel. We need to perform at the bottom of the courses.
“We definitely need to do more in the season to maintain our strength,” added Nyman, who won the classic Val Gardena downhill in December for the second time. “It’s a maintenance issue, a matter of maintaining that fitness we get in the summer. We have the facility, we have the trainers, the coaches and everything, we just need to maintain that through the winter.”
Sullivan, the team veteran at 32, thought the issue was tactical.
“Americans are known for stepping up in the big events and we definitely expected a lot today and maybe it got the better of us,” he said. “On a course like this you had to conserve a bit for the bottom pitch and I don’t think we did that. We were full guns out of the gate and it caught up with us. ... I wouldn’t say any of us are out of shape by any means.”
The Americans weren’t the only ones who struggled.
Defending champion Erik Guay of Canada made one big error midway down then appeared out of energy on the bottom, skiing off course two gates from the end and getting disqualified when he went back onto the track and crossed the finish line.