Switzerland Alpine Skiing World Cup

Bode Miller equals season best with fifth in Wengen downhill

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Bode Miller has been saying all season that he is as fit as he has been in over a decade.

He now has another marquee result to reinforce it.

The 36-year-old American star overcame adverse skiing conditions and a shortened course to post his second Top 5 finish in a World Cup downhill this season on Saturday in Wengen, Switzerland.

Dangerously high winds forced race officials to lower the start of the race below the Hundshopf jump at the Minschkante, which cut over a full minute off the course. Soft snow skied over during Friday’s super-combined froze overnight, leaving the lower portion of the course particularly rutty.

The conditions weren’t prohibitive enough to faze Miller, who led early before sliding back to fifth behind Switzerland’s Patrick Kueng, Austria’s Hannes Reichelt, Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal and Austria’s Max Franz. Miller’s effort equaled his season best in a downhill as he also finished fifth at Val Gardena, Italy on Dec. 21. Miller’s best finish was runner-up to Ted Ligety in giant slalom at Beaver Creek on Dec. 8.

“He pushed hard, took a lot of risk, and made up time,” U.S. coach Sasha Rearick said. “With those risks he made a couple of little mistakes, but he was pushing hard and letting the skis go, which is great to see Bode doing again.”

Miller was the highlight of a strong showing overall for the Americans.

Rising speed racer Jared Goldberg continued to make a strong case for Olympic selection. After finishing 20th in Friday’s super-combined, he made a huge jump in the standings, starting with Bib 40 and finishing 12th, the best finish of his career.

“I wasn’t trying to think about it too much coming in, because this year has been just a good learning year for me being my first full year on the World Cup,” Goldberg said of the impending Olympic team nominations. “But I feel really good. It was kind of a confidence builder yesterday to do well in the combined and I’ve been looking toward the downhill. Training runs have been going really well and I knew that if I really sent in there I could do well.”

Two-time Olympian Marco Sullivan finished 16th, equaling his finish of the season. Travis Ganong crossed in 28th.

“I am extremely proud of two other guys, Goldberg and Marco Sullivan,” Rearick said. “Certainly the guys in the early draw had a big advantage today. Jared Goldberg and Marco Sullivan put the hammer down with those conditions top to bottom and did a great, great job. I’m really proud of those guys, Marco with his experience, and Jared being a young guy taking some chances and really pushing it.”

In the next to last downhill race before Olympic teams are selected worldwide — the U.S. will announce it’s roster on Jan. 26 — focus was split between winning the 84th edition of the Lauberhorn classic but with an eye toward Sochi.

For Kueng, the biggest performance of his career couldn’t have come at a better time. The 30-year-old, who won his first career World Cup race on Dec. 7 in the super-G at Beaver Creek, Colo., became Switzerland’s fourth winner of this race in six years.

“It’s incredible,” Kueng told the Associated Press. “It’s very special for me. I think it’s the best place to win a race.”

The victory could bode well for Kueng if judging by past performances. The last Swiss winner in Wengen, Beat Feuz in 2012, went on to triumph at the Olympic test event on the Rosa Khutor slope in Sochi a few weeks later.

“Hats off to Kueng, he’s been skiing amazing this season,” Sullivan told AP. “It’s really not a surprise to the racers.”

For Team Austria, traditionally the powerhouses of Alpine skiing, frustration is mounting on the eve of the Games. They have not seen the top of the podium in a World Cup men’s downhill in 13 months, an eternity for the hyper-competitive squad.

Reichelt had the best opportunity to put an end to that drought, but for the third time this season he played the role of bridesmaid, a runner-up finish by .06 seconds that prompted his coach to rip off his helmet and slam it to the snow.

Compounding those feelings was the fact that Reichelt had knocked on the door of victory in this race before, finishing runner-up to Feuz in 2012 and third behind Italy’s Christof Innerhofer last season, only to have access denied.

“(Patrick) was very consistent this season,” Reichelt told AP. “It was just time until he got the victory.”

Reichelt did, however, bump Svindal down a spot to third place by just one-hundredth of a second. The hulking Norwegian, whose 6-foot-5, 214-pound frame suits the long, gliding sections of the shortened course, entered the race as the favorite, and added to his World Cup overall and downhill standings leads. But he fell short of ending a long Wengen losing streak for his country. The last Norwegian winner of this race was Lasse Kjus in 1999.

Canada’s Erik Guay, a Sochi medal favorite skiing as well as he ever has, also faltered on this course. After winning Thursday’s training run, Guay caught a bad bump entering one of the high-speed turns and skied off course. No Canadian has won this race since Ken Read, a two-time Olympian of “Crazy Cowboys” fame, in 1980.

Alexander Glebov provided a glimpse of what Russian fans can expect from their best skier in Sochi. The 30-year-old, a Slovenian by birth, continued his season-long improvement and finished 51st.

Racing will conclude in Wengen on Sunday with the men’s slalom.

Wengen Men’s Downhill

1. Patrick Kueng (SUI) 1:32.66

2. Hannes Reichelt (AUT) 1:32.72

3. Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR) 1:32.73

4. Max Franz (AUT) 1:32.90

5. Bode Miller (USA) 1:33.01

6. Matthias Mayer (AUT) 1:33.10

7. Peter Fill (ITA) 1:33.20

8. Romed Bauman (AUT) 1:33.26

9. Johan Clarey (FRA) 1:33.28

T10. Beat Feuz (SUI) 1:33.40

T10. Didier Defago (SUI) 1:33.40

12. Jared Goldberg (USA) 1:33.43

16. Marco Sullivan (USA) 1:33.65

28. Travis Ganong (USA) 1:34.10

T37. Erik Fisher (USA) 1:34.34

48. Steve Nyman (USA) 1:34.79

56. Bryce Bennett (USA) 1:35.00

Ted Ligety’s super-combined win key for Sochi Olympic medal hopes

Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

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Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

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