Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sizzle of World Cup Finals between Vonn, Riesch fizzles out

Friends Maria Riesch and Lindsey Vonn smile during awards at Lenzerheide, Switz. last week. Courtesy photo by Getty Images/AFP-Franck Fife

By the U.S. Ski Team, Ski Racing Magazine News Service and Idaho Mountain Express

After five months of ski racing across a dozen countries, the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup title came down to a mere three points and a hundredth of a second Saturday at Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Germany's Maria Riesch took the overall title over the U.S. Ski Team's Lindsey Vonn when Saturday's much-anticipated giant slalom finale was canceled due to fog and soft snow. Let's put it this way—the fog was so thick in the finish area that spectators couldn't even see the big screen TV.

The outcome snapped the American's three-year World Cup overall title string.

Riesch, 26, won her first World Cup overall title 1,728 to 1,725 over 26-year-old American ace Vonn. American Julia Mancuso finished fifth overall with 976 points.

Despite missing the overall crown, Vonn took home three discipline titles (downhill, super G, super combined) bringing her American record to 12. Vonn won eight World Cup races to extend her U.S. career mark to 41, further solidifying her place as America's winningest ski racer of all time.

Riesch won her overall title without winning a single crystal globe for taking a discipline. Vonn outdistanced second-place Riesch 650-457 in downhill, and 560-389 in super giant slalom. Vonn also won combined 220-212 over Slovenia's Tina Maze, with Riesch third (205).

Where Riesch won her overall title was in slalom, where she placed third overall with 470 points, to Vonn's 107. The other discipline winners were Marlies Schild of Austria (680) in slalom and Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany in giant slalom (435).

"Win or lose I just wanted the chance," said Vonn about Saturday's canceled giant slalom. "I feel devastated. But I'm extremely proud to have been in the fight in what was one of the most exciting seasons in ski racing history."

Despite winning more races than Riesch over the course of the season, Vonn was behind nearly the entire way and last led in late December. Just a few weeks ago she was over 200 points behind and heading into a string of technical events where the German star was heavily favored.

But Vonn came back, with a career-first giant slalom podium last weekend in the Czech Republic. She entered the World Cup Finals at Lenzerheide just 23 points behind.

In the World Cup Finals opener Wednesday, Vonn took advantage of Riesch's mistakes in the downhill to move back into the lead by 27 points. Vonn's opportunity to gain more ground in Thursday's super giant slalom finale went by the board when the race was canceled.

Riesch flip-flopped the lead in Friday's slalom—a mere hundredth of a second giving her just enough points to get past Vonn. It set the stage for what many had hoped would be a head-to-head battle in the giant slalom final. But it didn't happen.

Much like what happened a day earlier with cancellation of the men's giant slalom, FIS officials inspected the course early Saturday and made an immediate decision to cancel without trying to delay through the day in hope of improving conditions. Indeed, rain and warm temperatures have plagued the races all week.

"I feel so sorry for Lindsey," said U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Alex Hoedelmoser. "Just to call it in the morning wasn't the right way to go. We should have tried everything possible to get this race off. This is a tough day for Lindsey and the sport of ski racing."

"The cancellation of this race doesn't just hurt me, it hurts the fans and the sport of ski racing as a whole," said Vonn.

It was bittersweet for Vonn, who has long been close friends with Riesch. "Maria had an outstanding season and again proved to be my biggest competitor," said Vonn. "She's worked really hard for this. I'm happy for her and every athlete who stood on the top step this season."

Vonn had accolades, too, for her own U.S. Ski Team teammates who had a strong season. Ted Ligety (Park City, UT) won the World Cup GS title an American record third time, as well as World Championship gold. Julia Mancuso (Squaw Valley, CA) had a resurgence, including a win in the World Cup Finals downhill.

"Ted continues to take GS to a new level, Julia was right back on the podium and the U.S. women won the downhill and super G standings," said Vonn. "I cannot thank my husband, coaches and our entire team enough for their support. This was a great season."

Despite leaving Lenzerheide with three crystal globes, it was hard for Vonn to not reflect back over five months and dozens of ski races.

"There are so many ways to look at this," said Vonn. "There may never be a day where I don't look back and say 'what if?' But right now, all I'm thinking about is how much harder I need to work this summer to continue winning races. I love ski racing."


TV commentators chime in on finale

The unfinished ending of the season-long battle between Maria Riesch and Lindsey Vonn for the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup overall title will long be debated.

Everyone seems to agree, however, is having weather decide one of the most fascinating match-ups in alpine ski racing history was a huge disappointment.

Following Saturday's anti-climatic ending, Universal Sports commentators Steve Porino and Doug Lewis, who covered the entire World Cup season for the U.S. television network, weighed in on a history-making season.

Lewis, a veteran U.S. Ski Team racer and World Championship bronze medalist in downhill, said, "Ultimately we all were robbed. We were robbed of the final race, the final act, the final play, the final two runs in this epic battle of technique, snow, ice, speed and risk. The final showdown between two amazing athletes.

"But instead of wondering why the FIS only schedules four days to hold eight races, let's enjoy what we just saw from the two best athletes on the planet over the last five months.

"Lindsey did not have an off year. She skied away from Lenzerheide with three globes, eight wins, a first-ever GS podium and a highlight reel of recoveries that rivals even Bode Miller. Personally, I am most amazed at her recoveries at speed. The recoveries in the downhills at Lake Louise, Val d'Isere and Altenmarkt not only kept her out of the nets, but landed her on the top step of the podium! Her 1,725 points are higher than when she won two of her three overall globes!

"It was darkest for Lindsey leaving Are, Sweden two weeks ago. Riesch had nipped her by .01 in her signature super G event. Still trailing, Lindsey re-energized, re-committed and adopted a "nothing to lose" attitude. She rode that new outlook from almost 200 points down to a lead going into the final two races. In that stretch she showed herself and the ski world just what she was made of. Lindsey did not lose the overall, she was beaten by a new Maria Riesch."

Lewis continued, "Maria Riesch raised her game this year. It was evident when she won the first two downhills of the season in Lake Louise. She went from a tech skier who was not that comfortable in speed, especially whenever the light was flat, to a four-time speed winner this year.

"But leading the overall was new to Maria and it showed. It was a rollercoaster of emotions all year. She weathered three slumps, the biggest being the last six races before the final slalom Friday. Three times she looked like she could not handle the pressure of being chased. But all three times she somehow rebounded with key results when she needed them.

"The pressure was the greatest entering the final stretch into the finals. The bottom seemed to drop out in Tarvisio and Spindleruv and in the opening downhill in Lenzerheide. But, true to form, she showed up to win and take the globe in Friday's slalom, punching out of the gate to finish second in the first run. After a tentative second run, she placed fourth by a mere hundredth, giving her the lead and ultimately the crystal globe.

"Yes, the FIS needs to review scheduling so this doesn't happen again. But I cannot wait until next year when Lindsey and Maria go head-to-head again."

A former U.S. Ski Team downhiller, Steve Porino is a veteran broadcaster, covering alpine ski racing at every level for over a decade.

Porino said, "We were just treated to the tightest World Cup title race in the history of the sport. But we just didn't know it at the time it happened. I can't say I'm a fan of watching a contest when I don't know where the finish line is. I hope it's something the FIS will visit when it puts together the schedule for future seasons.

There are 17 days scheduled at the Olympic Games to complete all the 10 Olympic events. The FIS allows 13 days at World Championships for the 11 events that include a Team event. But at the World Cup Finals nine races are shoehorned into five competition days.

"Four titles were announced via text this week when the jury canceled races early in the morning—men's and women's GS, the men's super G, and the women's Overall. Women's super G was also canceled—a title Vonn had clinched weeks ago.

"That's not dramatic. Unfortunately, it's nothing new that titles still in contention end with a cancellation. What is it they say about the definition of insanity? Repeat the same behavior over and over but expect a different result.

"I won't disagree that the most deserving people won the titles. But I think the fans deserved a bit more.

Ligety wins GS globe a third time

Ted Ligety, 26, is the giant slalom champion after heavy wet snow overnight forced officials to cancel the final race of the season Friday at Lenzerheide. It was the third giant slalom title in four years for Ligety.

Ligety won three World Cup giant slaloms this season and was leading the discipline by 77 points after a solid third-place finish at Kranjska Gora last weekend. Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal finished second and Richard Cyprien of France took the third spot, just three points back of Svindal.

"It is kind of weird losing two full GS races (this season) but I am pretty happy about it," Ligety said. "Any time you get a title it is obviously a good year!"

Lenzerheide has been plagued with exceptionally warm, wet weather which cost the resort both men's and ladies super G races Thursday.

"It is a good thing they cancelled it based on bad conditions," Ligety added. "You hate to win or lose a title based on fluky race conditions."

For Ligety this season was more satisfying than his win last year. "This year I did it in the fashion that I am definitely more proud of and this season having won the World Championships was huge," he continued. "It was a good feeling being able to win under that kind of pressure."

Ligety started the season on fire, capturing the first three GS races in Beaver Creek, Val d'Isere, and Alta Badia.

"All three of those wins were special in their unique way," he said. "I think Alta Badia was maybe the coolest because that is a GS hill I have always wanted to win on. It is one of the classics."

Winning the overall title was Croatia's Ivica Kostelic (the slalom and combined king) by a 1,356 to 956 margin over Switzerland's Didier Cuche (downhill and SG winner). Ligety finished ninth with 610 points and Bode Miller was 14th with 471.

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