Kirchgasser lands first slalom victory in Kranjska Gora
KRANJSKA GORA, Slovenia – Michaela Kirchgasser had the day of her life on Sunday, beginning early … with the first run of the World Cup slalom at Kranjska Gora.
After her Austrian teammate, slalom ace Marlies Schild, missed a gate at the top of the first run, Kirchgasser took it upon herself to step into the lead. She stayed there until the very end – winning the first slalom race of her career – her first Cup victory since her token win in giant slalom back in 2007.
“It’s great. It’s awesome. I don’t know what to say,” said a breathless Kirchgasser right after the race. “It was pretty rough – I had to fight from the beginning. But I never give up and it’s wonderful. Oh my god, I love this victory.”
The 26-year-old’s victory was very Schildesque in its dominance, which didn’t come easily on the very challenging Podkoren slope. Two tricky course sets (set by Slovakia in the first run and France in the second) eliminated a good number of the field, including Schild and several other top contenders. Not only did Kirchgasser dominate from start to finish, but she won rather handily in a combined time of 1 minute, 47.25 seconds. Only Tanja Poutiainen could come within a second of the Austrian, taking second place, 0.65 seconds back. With the combined time from her 10th-place finish in Saturday’s GS, Poutiainen also earned the Golden Fox award. Slovakia’s Veronika Zuzulova landed her first podium of the season, taking third Sunday, 1.34 seconds off the winning time.
The challenges of the Kranjska slalom were clear from the start when, wearing bib No. 2, Olympic slalom champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch missed a gate at the top of the first run and then, in bib No. 4, Schild missed exactly the same gate.
“One mistake and that’s it,” Schild said. “This happens sometimes in slalom. It happened so fast. I saw this [flush] in inspection. I thought it would not be a problem. I thought I could go full speed, but it was the wrong way.”
A total of 26 racers out of 73 starters failed to finish the first run and six more were eliminated in the second.
The course set was tight in the first run and in the second, the rolling, steep terrain proved too much for much of the field. Between runs, Kirchgasser pointed out that this was the first time she’d ever had the lead after the first run but she actually woke up feeling intimidated, not having raced since her podium finish in Zagreb (the first of her slalom career), during which she suffered a bone bruise on her leg and then had to take some time off.
“I had a little bit of fear when I woke up this morning. I didn’t know how it would be after my injury on this hard, icy slope,” she said.
Clearly however, she is healthier than she’s ever been … especially in slalom. The Austrian has finished top 10 in every slalom race this season but most of her previous World Cup success had come in giant slalom, having landed five podiums in the discipline, including the first Cup victory back in 2007 in Sierra Nevada. She also has two podiums in super-combined, the most recent in St. Moritz in 2010.
“I did pretty good skiing today,” Kirchgasser said. “ I like it when it’s icy like this. You have to fight from start. It is long time ago that I was at the top. It’s great. I said, ‘OK … just ski fast and have fun and I think it goes good.”
Poutiainen, who has struggled a bit in GS this season but landed a second place in slalom in Courchevel last month, truly found her rhythm in Kranjska Gora.
“I was pushing with everything I had, especially in the second run,” said the veteran from Finland, who, at 31, was the oldest racer competing in Kranjska Gora this weekend. “This was not an easy race. I had to fight from start to the end. It was icy, but really good conditions for everybody. It was holding well. But with this course, you have flat, rollovers, steeps … you have to focus the whole way down.”
Poutiainen added that her experience was beneficial in staying cool with her top spot after the fourth run (third behind Zuzulova and Kirchgasser), and that she was able to block out what was happening throughout the second run and simply give it her best.
“I know I just need to do my run, and the girls next to me, they will be giving everything too and trying to get on the podium,” she said. “There’s no reason to have the handbrake on.”
Zuzulova, after trailing by just 0.11 seconds after the first run, was aware of the problems several of the athletes were having on course before her in the second run and perhaps put the handbrake on a little bit.
“I heard some of that. It was not easy for me to attack,” she said. “I tried to ski fast, but also safe. It wasn’t easy to do this but I did. It was not an easy race. The slope was difficult … the conditions were not easy.”
Tina Maze, who incited a loud roar every time she appeared on the big screen throughout the day and especially when she crossed the finish line in the lead in the second run, ended up finishing fourth, 1.66 seconds behind Kirchgasser. Austrian Kathrin Zettel, who won the Golden Fox in 2010 when she swept both the GS and slalom races in Maribor, fought from 17th after the first run to fifth place, though 2.28 back. Nicole Hosp put down her best slalom performance in more than a year, finishing sixth, 2.80 seconds back, and Lindsey Vonn is looking more consistent once again in slalom this season, taking seventh, 2.89 seconds back. After eighth-place Christina Geiger, who finished 2.95 seconds off the lead time, the rest of the field finished well over 3 seconds behind Kirchgasser.
By Shauna Farnell