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Alpine skiing involves as much chance as it does skill

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010; D07

WHISTLER, B.C. -- Four years ago, Michael Walchhofer -- the very picture of an Alpine ski racer, a tall Austrian with a chiseled jaw -- stood at the bottom of a mountain in the Italian Alps on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. He had completed his run in the Olympic men's downhill race, and the gold was his. The top racers in the world had come and gone, and Walchhofer, it seemed, needed merely to wait for the medal ceremony before he joined Ingemar Stenmark and Hermann Maier as legends in his home country.

But long after the favorites had gathered at the mountain's base, a Frenchman named Antoine Deneriaz appeared in the starting gate, the 30th starter of the day. He had never finished better than eighth in a World Championship or Olympic downhill. Yet on a single day that can change a man's life, he beat them all. He crushed Walchhofer's time by nearly three-quarters of a second -- an eternity in ski racing -- and became just the latest unknown, unexpected gold medal winner in the fastest event in ski racing.

"For us, there is never anything sure," Deneriaz said here Friday, where he is working as a commentator on French television. "You always have to manage with the snow, with the weather, with the clouds, with the temperature and humidity. There are so many factors that you can't manage yourself, that you need a bit of something else -- a bit of chance."

The list of favorites, then, for Saturday's Olympic downhill on the unfamiliar Dave Murray course here -- where drizzle fell Friday afternoon and the schedule remained in doubt -- is as dubious as the weather. Whenever the race is contested, Didier Cuche, the experienced, fire hydrant-shaped Swiss, leads the way, and he is being watched closely by the entire field. Carlo Janka, at 23 a dozen years younger than his countryman Cuche, is coming off an impressive downhill victory in Wengen, Switzerland, and has the talent to beat everyone.

Walchhofer is here, too, and his time Thursday was the fastest official training run in the only session Whistler's weather allowed to be completed. Throw in a group of Canadians -- Robbie Dixon and Erik Guay, second and third in training, and Whistler native Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who trails only Cuche and Janka in the World Cup downhill standings -- and the list of potential winners appears easy to define.

Except for the Deneriaz factor. Except for those shots from the blue, from the brash American Bill Johnson in Sarajevo in 1984 to the Frenchman Jean-Luc Cretier, never a World Cup winner in any discipline, in Nagano in 1998.

"There's so much anticipation for that one day," said Californian Marco Sullivan, one of four Americans in the event. "It's really the guy that can get the breaks and get himself fired up for that day. That might be different than a guy that's consistently strong all season. I don't know if there's any science behind the 'dark horse' victory."

This is not, skiers point out, swimming or track, sports in which athletes train meticulously to physically peak at the time of important competitions. Their fitness must be constant, and they must deal with a slew of variables, almost all of which are on display here. Swimmer Michael Phelps, for instance, didn't have to deal with rain when he won his eight gold medals in Beijing, and none of his competitors had an advantage because he started earlier or later in the day.

Moreover, racers prefer the snow to be hard, and courses are typically injected with water that turns them into virtual sheets of ice. But a combination of temperatures as high as the low 40s and some drizzle has softened the Olympic course, particularly near the bottom.

Thus, an event that is unpredictable in its nature is growing even moreso.

"You have to kind of change your skiing," American Steven Nyman said. "It's softer snow. . . . It breaks away from you, so you have to really lengthen the turn out and be subtle and soft. If you're not that way, you'll lose your foot and drift out a lot. You just got to change your style just a little bit."

That bit of advice might apply to all but the Canadians entered in the event. That team not only includes capable racers -- Osborne-Paradis has won two World Cup downhill races -- but the training results would indicate there is something of a home-mountain advantage. Whistler is not a regular stop on the World Cup tour; it hosted a test event here in 2008, but no men's downhill. The Canadian team, though, trained here both late last year and again in the weeks leading up to the Games. "I think they've kind of figured it all out," said Andrew Weibrecht, an American on the rise.

So the U.S. team decided to tap into that knowledge. After Thursday's training run, they watched video of how Cuche and other top skiers attacked the course, paying particular attention to the Canadians.

Cuche came here recovering from a broken thumb, but his training runs were smooth, and he seems ready to contend. American Bode Miller, who finished fifth four years ago when Deneriaz won, was the fastest American in training, and said, "I'm really happy with the condition I'm in now physically."

There is, though, every chance that a man whose name is unfamiliar will be the one standing on the podium, listening to his country's national anthem. This is one run, no mistakes allowed, pressure be damned -- all to change your life. Deneriaz, now, can't ride the Paris subway without being recognized.

"It changed most everything," Deneriaz said. "I hope, myself, I did not change. I hope I'm still the same. But the look of the others changed. Everything I'm doing now I would not have done without the medal. It's a lot of new things, but it is all so good, and I am the only one who expected it."

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