Erin Mielzynski lands first Cup victory in Ofterschwang slalom

04 March 2012 10:37

OFTERSCHWANG, Germany – The word of the day was “hope” in the Ofterschwang World Cup slalom, at least that’s the choice term used by a couple of the race’s key players, including Canadian Erin Mielzynski, who went from never having even scored a top 10 in the World Cup to winning the race on Sunday.

The win-or-lose nature of slalom racing was starkly clear in Ofterschwang, where after several days of T-shirt temperatures, the snow on the racecourse was soft and challenging.

The 21-year-old tech specialist woke up feeling it was going to be “a special day.”

“I knew today would be a special day because the snow was so different,” said Mielzynski, who had only previously had eight scoring results on the World Cup, her best a pair of 13th places. “The hill was prepared very, very well. But feeling the snow out beforehand, I knew anything could happen on a day like today.”

That “anything” turned out to be a much different show than we’ve seen in any other slalom race on the ladies tour this season. Slalom queen Marlies Schild was skiing at her usual rocket pace in the first run but lost the line and nearly missed a gate, dropping a lot of speed and finishing with 0.77 seconds to make up. It was Tina Maze who set the pace in the first run, finishing in the lead with just a handful of racers within a second of her time.

One of these was Resi Stiegler, who skied to ninth place in the first run after starting with bib No. 35. The American whose career has been hampered by several serious injuries competed in the second run of a giant slalom race for the first time in five years in Ofterschwang on Saturday, and approached the slalom with a fierceness she’d almost forgotten she possessed.

Mielzynski, fifth after the first run, crossed the finish line with the green light – something she had never achieved in her Cup career in a second run – and watched as the four racers ahead of her either went out or failed to match her speed, including Maze, who ended up skiing off-course.

Tears hit the Canadian’s eyes as her compatriots smothered her in the finish area. Stiegler underwent a similar sequence of attention and emotions in the leader’s box. Only the Canadian beat her and only by 0.05 seconds, meaning the first podium for the American in her long, turbulent career.

Schild also put the hammer down the second run, making up all the time she could manage and managing to still make the podium, 0.07 seconds back, securing the slalom globe – the fourth of her career – with two more races left in the season.

“Today has been surreal,” said Mielzynski, who is the first Canadian woman to win a World Cup slalom race in exactly 41 years and who gave up a second life as a competitive water skier to pursue her alpine career. “I’ve struggled a bit on the way,  especially with my confidence to find who I am as a skier. I came into today and I believed. I just tried to ski like I do in training. It’s an amazing day, I don’t have words to describe it yet … maybe tonight the words will come.”

When Stiegler crossed the finish line of the first run in ninth place, her shriek of joy lasted several minutes as she waved enthusiastically to her teammates. After a GS crash in 2007 that resulted in a broken arm and torn knee ligaments, Stiegler was barely back in shape when she broke her leg playing soccer. The Jackson Hole, Wyoming native made a cameo in the 2009 world championships but shortly after, broke her foot falling off a step. At the beginning of the 2009-10 season, she was back on the race hill, eager to train and get back into World Cup-caliber form. That November however, she suffered her worst setback, crashing and breaking her left leg in two places while training GS in Colorado. Now, at age 26, Stiegler is back … and on the podium for the first time.

“I have to say thanks to my whole team,” Stiegler said. “They’ve always been there for me for all my years of being down. I had a good day yesterday – it was my first second run since my crash in 2007. I’ve had nine or 10 surgeries since then. Coming back and trying to ski, everyone keeps getting faster …  you just don’t know if it’s gonna happen sometimes. But today gave me a lot of hope.”

During the post-race press conference, Schild brought everybody to laughter when she said with sincere enthusiasm, “I never had a third place this season.”

“I’m really happy with this result today,” she continued. “When I’m at the start, I want to win. Today two girls were faster. That’s how life is, the young girls are coming, getting faster and faster. I have to work hard to compete with them. It’s what makes it interesting. Yes, it’s nice to get the globe – it was my goal for the season – but I always want to do good in every race. I ski not depending on any record or globe. Erin had a really amazing race today. And Resi, to get her first podium after so many injuries … that’s great, too. I know what it’s like.”

Fellow veteran Tanja Poutiainen had a solid weekend in Ofterschwang. After her fifth-place GS finish on Saturday, she was fourth Sunday, just 0.13 off the winning pace. Proudly singing along “Oh Canada” to her national anthem, Marie-Michele Gagnon notched the best result of her slalom career in fifth, 0.21 seconds off the pace as Lena Duerr became the Bavarian hero Sunday with a career best of sixth, 0.25 back. Swedes Frida Hansdotter and Therese Borssen were seventh and eighth, respectively, and Maria Hoefl-Riesch finally put some points on the board after two days of DNFs in the GS races, finishing ninth. With the fastest second run of the day (55.80 seconds) Nicole Hosp skied from 26th after the first run to 10th, 0.64 back.

In spite of ending up on the DNF list, Maze is still in second place in the World Cup overall and slalom standings. She would have to win all of the remaining six races however, to beat World Cup overall leader Lindsey Vonn, who also DNFed Sunday, crashing out in the first run. Vonn has 1708 points in the overall and Maze has 1214. Hoefl-Riesch is now up to 1075 points in the overall standings.

Schild has 660 points and is untouchable for the slalom globe, but second place is up for grabs. Maze has 361 points and Michaela Kirchgasser, who skied out in the first run Sunday, has 334 points, Poutiainen has 320 and Kathrin Zettel, who crashed in the second run, has 305. After finishing third in the first run, American Mikaela Shiffrin, who turns 17 next week, was on pace for the second podium of her Cup career, but skidded wide at the bottom of the second run course and ended up last.

Go here for video interviews with Mielzynski, Stiegler and Schild.

By Shauna Farnell

Go here for a video of race highlights.

Go here for full race results.