Courtesy of the U.S. Ski Team
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November 17, 2008 — LEVI, Finland -- Reigning overall and downhill World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn of Vail improbably captured the first World Cup slalom podium of her career with a decisive victory at the opening slalom of the 2009 World Cup season in Finland Saturday. The win vaulted her back into the overall World Cup lead for the first time since she won it all last March.
On the men’s side the next day, independent racer and defending overall World Cup champion Bode Miller of New Hampshire finished second in the men’s slalom on Sunday, his best result in the tightest and most technically demanding of alpine disciplines since 2004. Miller is a former World Cup tech specialist, but Vonn has always been known for her speed at this level.
“It's just mind boggling to me that I'm wearing the red bib in slalom,” said Vonn. “This is such an incredible way to start the season, there's no way I could have predicted my first win would be a slalom.”
Traditionally the most dominant speed skier on the World Cup, Vonn picked up from her historic '08 season, where she won the second run of slalom at the March World Cup Finals in Bormio, Italy. It was that slalom result which secured her the overall World Cup title; the first time an American had captured the coveted trophy since Tamara McKinney in 1983.
The three best slalom results of her career have now come courtesy of the Black Slope in Levi. During back-to-back races held in March of 2006, she finished fourth and sixth respectively. Saturday was the 14th World Cup victory of her career, just four short of tying McKinney’s record mark of 18 career wins for an American woman.
“I love Levi, this hill just suits me so well, it's a lot like Minnesota with a flat section followed by some really steep gates. Normally I'm not that good on the steeps, but I've been working really closely with Rossignol on my skis and they're feeling so good,” said Vonn, who grew up skiing Buck Hill in Minnesota before moving to Vail to train with Ski Club Vail.
Vonn led the entire race Saturday carrying a .22 second cushion out of the first run. She was gaining speed throughout the second run, then nearly missed a gate at the halfway point. Incredibly, she recovered to finish .40 in front of second place finisher Maria Pietilae-Holmner of Sweden with a final time of 1:47.98. Vonn's best friend and top competitor Maria Riesch of Germany was third.
Fellow U.S. Ski Team racer Sarah Schleper (also Vail) finished 25th in only her second World Cup race after a returning from a two-year hiatus from ski racing.
“This was completely wild. If you were to ask me when Vonn would get her first win of the year, everyone would say Lake Louise (in Canada, where she’s won several World Cup super-G and downhill races). But she totally deserved this,” said head slalom coach Trevor Wagner. “Halfway down she shot way out and was completely off the gate, but then threw it into another gear and hammered all the way to the finish.”
Originally from Minnesota, Vonn cut her ski racing teeth in Erich Sailer's club program at Buck Hill, just South of the twin cities. With an elevation of 309 feet, slalom was her specialty while growing through the U.S. Ski Team pipeline. It wasn't until her family moved to Colorado that she began getting serious about speed.
“I'm dedicating this victory to Buck Hill and Minnesota,” Vonn said. “I've already received an email of congratulations from my old coach Erich Sailer. It feels pretty good to go back to my roots and know that I can ski well again in slalom.”
That focus led to her becoming the most successful downhiller in American history, surpassing childhood hero Picabo Street and Daron Rahlves with 10 World Cup downhill wins last season. But according to Vonn, this one is extra sweet.
“I went from barely being in the top 30 to the top 15 in one race, that's pretty sweet. A lot of it has to do with the training I had in New Zealand over the summer. I trained with the men's World Cup and Europa Cup Team on injected snow and also did some training with Erik Schlopy (Park City, Utah) last week in at Copper Mountain in Colorado. The preparation was there,” she said.
In her first slalom since the 2006 Olympics, Vail’s Schleper tied for 30th in the first run and was looking solid through her second when she missed a gate over a difficult roll in the course. She stopped quick enough to hike back for the gate and finish the run. She ended up 25th but was too far back in time to gain World Cup points.
“What 'Schlep' did today was amazing. It's been two years and eight months since her last slalom race, so for her to make the top 30 today was a big victory. Sure, it's a bummer she didn't score, but this is big for her confidence. We'll get Kaylin [Richardson; Edina, Minn.], Hailey, and Julia [Mancuso; Olympic Valley, Calif.] going in Aspen and we're going to have one solid slalom program,” said Wagner.
Vonn would also like nothing more than to carry this momentum into the Aspen Winternational set for Thanksgiving Weekend in Aspen.
“Last season, I was psyched to be racing a downhill in Aspen and now this season I'm going to be just as excited to be racing a slalom there,” Vonn said. “Being able to go into my home races with the leader bib is pretty special,” she said.
On the men’s side Sunday, Miller scored his first slalom podium since December of 2004, finishing second in Levi to begin his quest for a third World Cup overall title.
Ted Ligety (Park City, Utah), who had the second fastest first run time, faltered in the second run, losing speed on a double gate hairpin turn that devoured eight other racers. Despite the mistake, the defending World Cup giant slalom champion finished 22nd to remain in the top 5 for the overall World Cup chase. Jimmy Cochran (Keene, N.H.) also made the second run, but fell victim to the difficult course and failed to finish.
Jean-Baptiste Grange of France claimed victory with a time of 1:44.49, nearly eight tenths of a second in front of Miller. It was Grange's fourth World Cup slalom victory and moved him into the overall World Cup lead. Austrian Mario Matt was third.
“Our guys are skiing really fast and that's the main point,” said head slalom coach Rudi Soulard. “Ted had an incredible first run, he knows he's skiing really strong and will take that away from today and Bode looks like he's back in slalom. He has a very compact body position, which is something we haven't seen from him in a long time.”
Miller, starting 31st and skiing to third after the first run, fought through the treacherous hairpin section to win the top split time and capture his 65th World Cup podium.
“I took a lot of risks and as a result made little mistakes. But even with a flawless performance, I think Grange would have left me some .2 seconds behind,” Miller said. “I wouldn't say I'm back on the right track in slaloms because things have changed and I don't ski the same anymore. But this shows how competitive I am and I hope I can maintain that level of aggression for the whole season.”
Miller has won the overall World Cup title in 2005 and 2008. He has also captured discipline titles in super-G, giant slalom and super combined, but aims to hoist crystal globes for both slalom and downhill to become the first man to have won every discipline title since Jean Claude Killy, who competed in an era where there were only three disciplines.
Despite the results, Soulard says he saw a lot of solid skiing from the U.S., though Cody Marshall (Pittsfield, Vt.), Tim Jitloff (Reno, Nev.) and Tim Kelley (Starksboro, Vt.) did not qualify for the second run.
“Ted is a racing guy and he's not going to be phased by this. He wants to win, but he's skiing so strong and we have a lot more races to go,” Soulard said. “Jimmy was really good on the steeps and 'Jit' was on fire in the first run - he had the third fastest top split until he went out - other coaches where saying 'who's this guy?’
“Actually, a lot of other coaches were telling me how good our guys looked. We'll head back to Colorado now for some training before the giant slalom at Beaver Creek and we'll do some more slalom training to get ready for Val d'Isere.”
The next men's World Cup stop is Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, for a series of speed races before moving to Beaver Creek for the Audi Birds of Prey races Dec. 4-7. Val d'Isere, France will host a giant slalom and a slalom following Beaver Creek along with the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships in February.
Levi, Finland, Men's Slalom – Nov. 16, 2008
1. Jean-Baptiste Grange, France, 1:44.49
2. Bode Miller, Franconia, NH, 1:45.28
3. Mario Matt, Austria, 1:45.42
4. Silvan Zurbriggen, Switzerland, 1:45.55
5. Ivica Kostelic, Croatia, 1:45.57
22. Ted Ligety, Park City, UT, 1:50.78
Levi, Finland, Women's Slalom – Nov. 15, 2008
1. Lindsey Vonn, Vail, CO, 1:47.98
2. Maria Pietilae-Holmner, Sweden, 1:48.38
3. Maria Riesch, Germany, 1:48.64
4. Nicole Hosp, Austria, 1:48.94
5. Veronika Zuzulova, Slovakia, 1:49.10
25. Sarah Schleper, Vail, CO, 2:02.54
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