A great comeback season for Matt, Byggmark and Grange
Mario Matt, Jens Byggmark, Jean Baptiste Grange – three slalom stars who achieved impressive comebacks this season after facing hard times because of injuries, technical difficulties or lack of result.
At Bansko, Matt finally returned at the top of the standings and ended a frustrating drought as he won the demanding Bulgarian slalom ahead of the defending slalom World Cup champion Reinfried Herbst and the newly crowned World Champion Jean-Baptiste Grange.
Grange showed his class last November dominating the first slalom of the season in Levi, Finland, nearly a year after injuring his knee at Beaver Creek. Two months later, he achieved an amazing ‘hat-trick’ capturing the coveted slaloms of Kitzbühel and Schladming prior becoming the only fourth French slalom World Champion at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Byggmark, a double winner at Kitzbühel four years ago, was his superb runner-up in Bavaria after struggling for a long time on the World Cup tour. The colorful and extravagant Scandinavian had only scored a few top-10 results in the past two seasons prior qualifying for the World Championships thanks a strong 7th place at Schladming in the last slalom before the medal event.
In beating by a few hundredths his teammate Herbst after having clocked the fastest time in the first leg, Matt showed once more how gutsy he can be when battling for glory and honor. His numerous triumphs in all the main World Cup “Classics” – a total of 11 before his trip to Bansko – and his two FIS gold medals in 2001 and 2007 already brought him enough money to enjoy a long and comfortable live next to his numerous Arabian horses he breads in his place nearby St. Anton am Arlberg.
A long wait for Byggmark and Matt.
While ‘JB’ Grange managed to quickly celebrate a relieving triumph at the beginning of the season, both Byggmark and Matt had to be patient prior finding back their way to the top level in their specialty. Starting with high numbers for several weeks, they only slowly moved-up in the standings, race after race, before finding back their best rhythm.
Jens, who perpetrates the tradition of former legendary slalom specialists also born in Taernaby – among them Ingemar Stenmark, Stig Strand or Bengt Fjaellberg – suffered a major setback two years ago when he had to adapt his aggressive and spectacular technique to new rules established by the Technical Committee of FIS on the distance between the slalom poles and the size of the racing skis.
“Suddenly I was no longer able to make an efficient turn. I was completely lost, it was a hard time as I raced on rough courses with numbers sometimes as high as 56,” he commented recently. “Yet I hung in there. I’m pretty stubborn and I kept on believing in my potential. I just not believe that my career was over at 24 before it has really started. I surely learned a lot in the meantime and I strongly believe to be back for a long time now,” also commented the Swede who wore bib 18 on the Gudiberg eight days ago when he beat all the favorites except Grange to take silver behind him.
At Bansko he was finally back again in the more prestigious first seed with his bib 11 but he didn’t dare this time to apply his usual aggressive tactic to avoid losing his spot among the elite prior for the coming slalom race at Kranjska Gora. He also wants to make sure there to qualify for the Finals at Lenzerheide in three week.
‘Super Mario’, only twice among the best 10 last season and not present at the Vancouver Olympics, wore bib 43 at Adelboden when he rushed to an amazing 4th place that he greeted as a victory. He had not excelled in the previous three World Cup races and at that point he was fighting for his place within the Austrian team.
A solid ‘warrior”.
The fact that Manfred Pranger was the defending slalom World Champion at Garmisch-Partenkirchen helped him to qualify within the strong Austrian team later on even before his teammates Marcel Hirscher and Benjamin Raich got injured.
On race day, he was once more the most solid ‘warrior’ in his group as he came in again 4th at the foot of his 3rd podium at a major event – ten years after his first feat at St. Anton and eleven years after his first triumph at Kitzbühel.
Matt’s career was for sure not as ‘peaceful’ and smooth as he was hoping. Two painful shoulder injuries put him out of contention for several months in 2002 and 2003 when a new generation of slalom specialists lead by Bode Miller, Ivica Kostelic or Jean-Pierre Vidal started to dominate the slalom scene. Over four years went by between his 3rd and 4th wins at Aspen, Colorado, in November 2001 and Lenzerheide, Switzerland, in March 2005!
Mario’s passion for ski racing that he shares with his brother Andreas, a noted skier cross specialist, and his willingness to remain a winner should help him to stay for a while on the international tour – eventually until the 2013 FIS Worlds at Schladming, Styria, which promises to be particularly exciting for the local heroes.
Contributed by Patrick Lang