By Bob Barnett
SESTRIERE, ITALY – Antoine Deneriaz was not happy about winning Saturday’s final downhill training run, but the French veteran stunned everyone — especially Austrian Michael Walchhofer — to claim the Olympic downhill title this afternoon.
Deneriaz was fastest at every interval and beat pre-race favourite Walchhofer by .72 seconds on a rock-hard course, under sunny skies.
Walchhofer, who won the Kitzbuhel downhill last month and leads the World Cup downhill standings this year, was the apparent winner. He had been giving interviews for 40 minutes before Deneriaz, who started 30 th , stunned everyone.
“Starting from the last position was difficult, but I attacked it,” Deneriaz said.
“It’s the best day of my life; it’s like a dream. No one believed it could be true.”
Deneriaz tore knee ligaments in a training run in January of 2005 and has been working to regain his form in time for the Olympics.
“I’ve been thinking of nothing else for the past year,” he told French television. “It’s incredible. I’m Olympic champion.”
Walchhofer didn’t sound disappointed with the silver medal.
“It was great to catch silver,” the Austrian said. “It was one of my toughest races ever. There was a lot of pressure on me and after all I was the fastest of the favourites.”
Swiss Bruno Kernen, who won the 1997 world championship downhill on the Kandahar-Banchetta course at Sestriere, claimed the bronze medal, 1.02 seconds behind Deneriaz.
Whistler Mountain Ski Club alumnus Manuel Osborne-Paradis was the fastest Canadian, finishing 13th, 1.65 seconds behind Deneriaz. Osborne-Paradis started 29 th , just ahead of the Frenchman, but had trouble all week with the icy turns at the top of the course.
“The top two gates are the one I’m shooting to improve the most,” he said prior to the race. “On the flats, it’s all super G turns so I have to stay compact and look for speed. At the bottom, you just have to give it!”
Francois Bourque, of New Richmond, Quebec, was 16 th , 1.90 seconds out, and Calgary’s John Kucera was 27 th , 2.75 seconds off the pace.
The Canadians, the youngest team in an Olympic downhill race dominated by veterans, were aiming for top 15 finishes today.
Deneriaz’s victory was a surprise for a number of reasons. Although he has three World Cup downhill victories to his name, he had only two top-10 finishes this season as he recovered from knee surgery.
He inadvertently won Saturday’s final downhill training run despite slowing down before the finish line. When he crossed the line Saturday and realized he had the fastest time he threw his arms up in the air in dismay.
Winning the last training run meant Deneriaz started 30 th today, as the top 30 in the last training run start in reverse order in the race. Most of the top racers stood up before the finish Saturday in hopes of landing a start number between about seven and 15.
Despite the clear, cold weather all week, which kept the course consistent for all skiers, most thought an early start number would be an advantage.
Walchhofer threw in several check turns before the finish Saturday and wound up with start number 10 today. The gamesmanship nearly paid off as his time held up until Denriaz’s shocking run.
Norwegian veteran Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who has more Olympic medals than any other alpine skier, almost claimed another today. Aamodt was wild off the Angel Jump at the top of the course, and skidded on landing, but carried speed all the way down the mountain to wind up fourth.
American Bode Miller claimed fifth place but still held out hope after the race was over.
“Those guys might get disqualified and I could step in there,” he joked.
Miller said he made some small mistakes but didn’t think they cost him too much time.
“I was really fired up and I wanted to execute the race,” he said. “I did execute but I just didn’t have the speed.”
Of Deneriaz Miller said: “He is a fantastic skier. He crushed us all in Val Gardena (where Deneriaz won two winters ago), which is a similar course to this one.”
Deneriaz is the fifth French Olympic downhill champion, joining Jean-Luc Cretier (Nagano 1998), Jean-Claude Killy (Grenoble 1968), Jean Vuarnet (Squaw Valley 1960) and Henri Oreiller (St. Moritz 1948).