Swede tops podium in Winternational slalom
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Maria Pietilae-Holmner’s disbelieving eyes scanned the boisterous crowd, then a nearby scoreboard. Her mouth nearly dropped to the snow.
Minutes later, after a tearful embrace with her coach, the 24-year-old grinned and clutched her gold medal as teammates proudly belted out Sweden’s national anthem.
The weight of the moment had finally registered. Another first-time winner had emerged at Aspen Winternational.
Appropriately wearing a gold helmet and matching goggles, the diminutive Swede was nearly perfect in Sunday’s World Cup slalom on Aspen Mountain. Pietilae-Holmner laid down a blistering first run on Lower Ruthie’s Run, building a lead of 0.64 seconds over her nearest competitor. She closed out Winternational in style during an overcast afternoon, negotiating the 61-gate course with poise and precision to post a combined time of 1 minute, 46.19 seconds.
The effort was good enough to propel her past Germany’s Maria Riesch, who was 0.68 seconds off the pace. Finland’s Tanja Poutiainen settled for third place and her eighth podium finish here.
The win is Pietilae-Holmner’s first in 104 World Cup starts. She is the third skier in as many years to pick up her first victory in Aspen, joining France’s Tessa Worley (2008’s giant slalom) and Germany’s Kathrin Hoelzl (2009’s GS).
“What can I say, it’s amazing,” a giddy Pietilae-Holmner said. “I’m so happy right now. … I can’t describe it.”
Vail’s Lindsey Vonn shook off Saturday’s frustrating GS result, completing two clean if not dynamic runs to finish eighth.
“It was a pretty disappointing day yesterday. … I was just expecting too much and I was too excited, and I just tried to go too aggressive,” said the 26-year-old, who skied off course just 31 seconds into her opening run Saturday. “Today, I finally just relaxed and had two solid runs. It may not have been the fastest skiing I’ve ever done, but I’m in the Top 10 and it’s really good points, so I’m very happy.”
Teammate Resi Stiegler, who is working her way back from a string of injuries that kept her out of the starting gates for the bulk of the past three seasons, crossed the finish line in 25th place in her first World Cup race in more than a year.
“I was about to pass out [this morning], but besides that I was OK,” joked the 25-year-old from Jackson Hole, Wyo. “It’s difficult because you know you can try as hard as you want to prepare yourself for a race … but it’s hard to get the nervousness out before or until you race a little bit.”
Vonn’s and Stiegler’s results highlighted what turned out to be another lost day for the home team. Five U.S. skiers failed to finish in the Top 30 and qualify for a second run. Leanne Smith straddled the first gate, and Julia Mancuso, eighth here Saturday, skied off course after a costly early misstep.
“I just hit a rut, I guess, and slipped on the top. I don’t know, it was like the fourth gate. It happened so fast,” the Squaw Valley, Calif., product said. “I skied well, but it’s hard to make a mistake at the beginning because you know you pretty much have to win the rest of the course to make it in there. I was trying and pushing the line too much.”
An American has not climbed the Winternational podium since 2004, a span of 13 races.
“It’s just a hard hill. For me personally, no matter how many times I’ve skied on it, it’s just as challenging as the last time,” Vonn said. “It’s a hill that never quits. You have to be attacking from top to bottom.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t finally get a win here, but there’s always hope for next year.”
Pietilae-Holmner’s win is Sweden’s first podium finish here since 2006, when Therese Borssen captured GS bronze.
“I tried to go for it. I had nothing to lose,” Pietilae-Holmner said. “Of course I was little bit nervous, or a lot, but I could push [the other competitors out of first place]. I think I did good work.”
Riesch, the current World Cup Overall leader, was satisfied with silver – especially after a trying first run.
“I pretty much messed up the first run, so I tried to attack on the second one,” she said. “It was much better than the first, but it was still a little tricky. I think that was mostly because of the snow … it was grippy, aggressive snow and it’s hard to find the [right] set-up.”
Added Poutiainen: “It was challenging. It was really tough and hard and long, but this is what I like.
“It’s so great to come back here every year. I’m happy to be on the podium.”
David Stapleton is the development officer for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. A product of the club, AVSC sat down with Stapleton for a Q&A session in this week’s Clubhouse Chronicles.