Austrian dynasty stands all by itself
COPPER MOUNTAIN – The ski world knows why Austria’s alpine racing program is ze best: Nobody competes with the junior pipeline, nobody can touch the depth on the World Cup circuit, nobody can decode the red-and-white mystique. But does the rest of the sports world truly understand what kind of dynasty the Austrians have built?Consider: The Nations Cup represents a country’s alpine skiing power, and is determined by adding up every racer’s World Cup points over the course of a season – men and women – then arriving at a total for each country. The Austrians have won every Nations Cup since 1990 – 17 in a row.Because the World Cup is the highest level of alpine racing (it traditionally features racers from about 22 countries), this would be like the Yankees winning 17 consecutive World Series. Or the Patriots winning 17 consecutive Super Bowls. Or the Bulls winning the NBA title all 13 years Michael Jordan played in Chicago, plus four more after he retired.Can you imagine?You can if you’re a member of the Austrian alpine program. These guys are so damn used to winning, they’re starting to feel sorry for their once-proud neighboring nations, especially the Germans, because there is no longer any hope for a rivalry.”Sometimes it’s not so good because we are so strong, and at the moment it’s not so interesting for Germany,” Michael Walchhofer, the massive two-time reigning World Cup downhill champion, said after a 6 a.m. training session Thursday at Copper Mountain. “In the history it was always a fight between Austria, Switzerland and Germany, and at the moment it’s just a fight between Austria and USA.”
Actually, not really. The U.S. Ski Team has finished second to Austria in the Nations Cup the past two seasons, but it was more like the Americans won their own competition – the race for second place. After all, Austria does not just win cup championships; it plows through the rest of the field like an avalanche through an aspen grove.To wit: Only once in the last eight years has the Red and White not won the championship with at least twice as many points as the runner-up. The biggest margin during the streak came in 2000, when it was first-place Austria: 18,116, second-place Italy: 5,906. Last year, the Austrians won by nearly 9,000 points over the U.S.’All things work perfect'”The Austrian system is like a master plan,” said Knut Okresek, who spent four years as Hermann Maier’s press spokesman and now covers the team for the Austrian equivalent of USA Today. “They start the master plan in May, and they have a logistic gearing up to the first race from then on, where everyone knows what he has to do, when he has to do it, when everything has to kick in.”
Not only do the Austrians have the best racers, according to Walchhofer, but also the best coaches, World Cup techs and lower-level service guys. “All things work perfect,” Walchhofer said.Yet when it comes to worldwide recognition, Okresek said the amount the Austrians receive is “disappointing.” Even at the Olympics, the Austrian juggernaut is often overshadowed, for instance, by young, unproven figure skaters hailing from large, powerful countries like Russia and the U.S.”(Alpine skiing) nations are very small, that’s the reason” for the disparity in renown, said Benni Raich, last year’s World Cup overall champion.Raich should know. Despite winning Austria’s seventh overall crown on the men’s side in the past nine years, the 28-year-old still is overshadowed by Bode Miller, the ultratalented but sometimes inconsistent New Hampshire marvel who won the overall in 2005. While Miller is everything American – brash, exciting, unpredictable – Raich is everything Austrian – consistent, stable, almost machinelike.According to Raich, he has a deep respect for Miller’s technical prowess on skis, but there should be no debate over which of them is the world’s best all-around racer.
“Last year he was No. 3 and I was No. 1,” Raich said, shrugging his shoulders. “So just have a look at the final list and that’s the important thing.”Deep as an alpine valleyYou could say the Austrians are deep, but so could you say that Heidi Klum is pretty. Whereas the U.S. squad – the No. 2 team in the world, remember – gets about six World Cup start spots in each race, the Austrians often get 10. And it’s never a surprise if any of those 10 wins the competition.At last year’s Birds of Prey men’s super G, Austria put nine skiers in the top 19. There have been as many as seven Austrian men in the World Cup overall top 10 – in other words, more than the rest of the nations even get to start in an average race.Little changes on the women’s side. While the Austrians don’t win as many individual titles, their top-to-bottom strength remains exceptional; they put six women in last year’s overall top 10, and swept the podium at the World Cup opener this season.”It’s a little intimidating for other countries,” U.S. World Cup speed specialist Marco Sullivan said Thursday morning, after spending two hours training alongside the Austrian men. “You never see (the Nations Cup streak) ending. I mean, I don’t know what to say. Hopefully at some point we can start competing with them, but they just have so much depth.”
Does the respect matter?Having finished their training just before the lifts opened to the public, Raich, Walchhofer and the Herminator milled around Copper’s base area with the the rest of their delegation – teammates, coaches, techs and press officers, all of them dressed in red. Rows of their Atomic skis, long and sleek, rested next to them.An American junior racer walked up to Raich and asked him to sign his goggles. Sure, Raich said, then asked him where he should sign. The kid pointed at the middle of the lens, square in his line of sight. Raich shrugged, then signed.A few minutes later another junior racer approached Maier – “the most popular man in Austria,” according to Okresek, who co-authored a book with the racer in 2004. “Hermann,” the kid stammered, “will you, um, sign my arm?”If you ask Maier, he says it’s debatable whether the Austrian alpine program gets due respect from the media and sporting public around the world.”But it’s not so important to me,” he said. “I don’t care about it. I enjoy skiing and that’s important for me. If I’m fast with racing then it’s nice, and if there is some respect, it’s good. But it’s not so important.”
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Had Hailey Swirbul decided against going to Europe, she would not have finished with a career-best result in Friday’s World Cup opener. Yes, there was a time, and not long ago, when the U.S. ski team member and Roaring Fork Valley native questioned her desire to put on a race bib.