Austria off to worst downhill start in 25 years

Eric Willemsen
The Associated Press
Austria's Hannes Reichelt races the downhill in Kitzbuehel last year.
Alessandro Trovati / AP | AP

VIENNA — Without a top-three finish in the first three races, the Austrian downhill team is having its worst start to a World Cup season in 25 years.

Even with two-time World Cup downhill champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway sidelined because of a torn Achilles tendon, the former “Wunderteam” has failed to make any impact.

Hannes Reichelt was ninth in Lake Louise last month.

Then Max Franz in Beaver Creek and Olympic champion Matthias Mayer in Val Gardena both came in seventh for the team’s best results, making it the poorest showing in pre-Christmas races since 1989.

After harsh criticism by greats Stephan Eberharter and Michael Walchhofer in the Austrian media, and with six weeks left before the world championship downhill in Beaver Creek, the team wants to get back on track in the final downhill of 2014 — at Santa Caterina Valfurva, Italy, on Sunday.

“During the start of the season they haven’t taken their chances,” head coach Andreas Puelacher said. “Now, the guys are starting to take more risks. It won’t be long until we are back among the best.”

According to Puelacher, who took over from Mathias Berthold this season, it’s all about minor issues.

“If we avoid the small mistakes, then we’ll see fireworks soon,” the coach said, adding his racers have had good split times and been fast in parts of the races.

Austria won two of the most appealing downhill races last season, with Mayer capturing Olympic gold in Sochi and Reichelt taking the classic Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbuehel.

Less than a year on, the euphoria has vanished in a country where skiing is serious business. Former racers and other experts have been publicly discussing the plight of the downhill team.

“Some of them are coming down very passively, they just stick to the racing line they saw during course inspection and forget to let their skis go,” said two-time overall champion Eberharter, who won a World Cup race in Aspen. “If I see them, I ask myself whether they really want to be fast? Do they really want to win?”

Walchhofer, once Eberharter’s teammate and now vice president of the Austrian ski federation, is the last Austrian to win the world downhill title, in 2003. He also points to a “mentality issue.”

“It has nothing to do with training deficits,” he said. “Either you manage to overcome the challenge or you don’t.”

The remarks didn’t sit well with the team. Klaus Kroell called the comments “unnecessary,” and Reichelt added that “help from the likes of Walchhofer and Eberharter is always welcome, but they have my phone number. I’d rather see they call me than criticize us in some newspapers.”

Reichelt, at least, won a speed race this season — the super-G in Beaver Creek.

“There isn’t missing much in downhill,” said Reichelt, who sat out the Sochi Olympics with a back injury. “It’s just some small technical mistakes, a matter of centimeters in the turns.”

Despite the lack of downhill results, Austria is enjoying a good start to the World Cup season with five wins and nine top-three finishes overall, including a dominating performance by the Austrian women technical skiers in Aspen at the Aspen Winternational last month.

However, it is relying mainly on defending overall champion Marcel Hirscher, who already has racked up six podium finishes, including four wins, in technical events.

“What Marcel is doing is sensational,” the Austrian head coach said. “Our speed teams should beat (overall leader Kjetil) Jansrud as often as possible. That would be of great help to Marcel.”

Hirscher, in turn, might help the downhill team later. He is considering his first start in skiing’s fastest discipline in Saalbach on Feb. 21.