Gardena-Gröden: Surprise Coup and Victory by Heavy Favorite

The two races in Gardena-Gröden could not have ended more differently: on the one hand, Werner Heel brought on a giant surprise, and on the other a Saslong specialist and 7-time podium ranked-champion Michael Walchhofer placed gold.


Werner Heel was on nobody’s radar screen. The South-Tyrolean-native from the Passeir Valley brought on a Super-G surprise for everyone and was the first Italian to win the Downhill on Saslong after Kristian Ghedina’s gold in 2001. Heel already had a World Cup victory under his belt – he won the Downhill in Kvitfjell in February 2008 but his best result in Super-G was a 7th place at the 2008 World Cup finals in Bormio. Things had not run smoothly for the Italian team up to Friday’s race. The Italian athletes Fill, Heel et al. were lagging considerably during the training runs. Italy’s Head Coach Claudio Ravetto conceded that the team had a few shortcomings: “The athletes from other teams are physically better prepared, that is without a doubt. And we still don’t have a real good glider within the team and need to do more work on the athletic side.”

The wind-supported resurrection of the Italian „Azzurri“ team

But all this changed the day of the Super-G. Training runs might not be an indication of the outcome of the race, but Heel was aided but an altogether different factor: the wind. A front of warm weather and for the region often characteristic Föhnwind arrived the day of the race. The wind was not of critical intensity, but had a determining impact on the outcome of the race. It was the strongest right when the top skiers were coming down the run and clearly favored those skiers with the lowest starting numbers. Didier Defago (SUI) was the only skier with a bib higher than 15 who made it into the top 7. The skiers ranking from one to six all started with bib numbers one to five. Werner Heel’s victory was well deserved despite the wind. While second placed Defago was still 0.43 seconds behind the South Tyrolean, Defago and ten-placed Dider Cuche were only 0.44 seconds apart. Heel was at loss for words on his victory in the Super-G: “I don’t know what to say and can’t really explain why I was so fast today. I was somewhat depressed after the training runs which is why this victory is even sweeter. I don’t have grand plans for the Downhill.”

Austrian Dry Spell

On the other hand, Michael Walchhofer was full of expectations for the Downhill. The Austrian-native who grew up close to Salzburg at the Zauchen Lake was the last Austrian winner of Downhill gold on December 15th, 2007 and all the nation’s hopes were set on him. Even Hermann Maier stated that “Walchi” was the only one who could clench the gold for Austria. “This course is tailor-made for him.” The Super-G did certainly not give away any of his hopes for the Downhill as he placed 40th overall, by far his worst performance in any of his 133 World Cup races since 2001. And he knew it after the race: “I skied well. The wind just blew the gates at me. And conditions weren’t necessarily the same for everyone. This is why I am even more disappointed by the significant delay.” But then Saturday came, and all went according to plan as it always does for Walchhofer in Gardena-Gröden. Mr. Downhill, as he is known among his Austrain team members, showed all his gliding might and won ahead of Bode Miller (USA) and Manuel Osborne-Paradis (CAN) after two silver placings and a gold from last year. The fact that two North American skiers were on the podium did not make up for the fact that Eric Guay, who had supremely led both training runs placed only 5th on the day of the race. The Austrian nation, on the other hand, could breadth a sigh of relief after taking home the gold after a long 370 days. And Walchhofer’s words at the termination of the race were an indication of his sense of urgency to capture this gold: “I normally ski just for myself. But today I skied for the team and for Austria.”

North American Change of Guards

 Austria might have taken this victory, but the change of guard has already kicked in. This is evident when glancing at the result list and it is clear that the teams to beat in all speed disciplines are the US and Canada. Five skiers from the US (Miller/2nd, Sullivan/5th, Fisher/7th, Nyman/9th and Lanning/10th) and two from Canada (Osborne-Paradis/3rd and Guay 5th) all placed in the top 10. And our local favorites are also on their way to the top. Maybe not in the Downhill and on the course (Peter Fill’s 19th place was Italy’s best ranking) but certainly at the Finish. The increase in local contenders for the World Cup is attracting ever more spectators to come and watch the World Cup live.

Fan Clubs have Doubled

The podiums were packed with twice as many Fan Clubs as last year and the atmosphere was therefore twice as good. The vibes at the World Cup races in South Tyrol are always brilliant. As described to a tee by the German national newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: “The trilingual Gardena-Gröden valley in South Tyrol is known for three things: the wood carvers who practically exhibit their artifacts in every house, the thinly sliced speck and the World Cup Downhill in the shadow of the Langkofel, whose name in the local Ladin language also coined the name of the Downhill course Saslong. This appointment is always for the last weekend before Christmas which is also why it is a little quieter, more peaceful and comfortable than the rest of the World Cup circuit. There is only one person who might have missed the pre-holiday cheering mood: the President of the Italian ski federation Giovanni Morzenti. In anticipation of the races Mr. Morzenti obligated the organizers of the World Cup races in Gardena-Gröden and Alta Badia to pay more money to the Italian FISI association. Although organizers were able to come to some kind of an agreement after several weeks of negotiations, it looks like the races in Gardena-Gröden are not secured for the long-term because Mr. Morzenti wants to maximize his monetary return by handing the races to those organizers willing to pay the highest prize. This is a game that the OC of Gardena-Gröden under the leadership of Stefania Demetz does not want to play: looks like 40 years of experience in organizing World Cup races and the personal commitment and passion by the entire team is not enough to host the races. “I don’t understand why the entire team needs to be attacked like that. We are hosting a significant yearly celebration for sports and we are giving it all to ensure that this will continue for years to come. We are looking to the future with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.” announces Mrs. Demetz.