The women's super-G proved to be a war of attrition, as nearly 40 percent of the world's best skiers failed to finish the demanding run Saturday in the mountains above Sochi.
Of the 31 who did complete the course, 24-year old Anna Fenninger of Austria—a pre-race favorite—took gold, but she hardly made it look easy. American Julia Mancuso—hoping to make amends for a timid downhill after storming to a bronze medal in the super combined
—couldn't do better than an eighth place finish, despite flashes of brilliance throughout her run. She'd later tell reporters that she was merely "happy to make it to the finish."
The problem tripping up most racers (even those who managed to finish) was a section known as the Solitary Jump located toward the bottom of the course. After catching air over a large roll, racers had to change direction mid-flight in order to set up for the course's circuitous lower section. To make matters worse, skiers came into the turn completely blind because a pivotal gate was hidden on the backside of the roll.
Unlike its big brother the downhill, super-G allows no training runs (skiers are permitted a brief inspection the morning of), meaning racers are required to ski by memory alone. Add the high speeds and undulating terrain of downhill plus the technical turns of giant slalom, and it's easy to see why some experts consider the event to be Alpine's trickiest discipline.
But Sochi's edition might take the cake for the toughest ever. Of the first 10 racers, only three managed to stay on course and finish, though their runs were hardly textbook examples of technically sound skiing. With 40 racers still to follow, the air at the start became tense — the remaining women looked increasingly nervous while their coaches shouted into walkie talkies demanding race reports, scrambling to figure out how to tackle the course.
The best tactic appeared to be a compromise. Rather than carve the turn below the Solitary Jump, racers were forced to throw their skis sideways into a power-slide, thus enabling them to check their speed and stay on a high line going into the final gates before the finish. It wasn't pretty, but it sufficed.
Austrian veteran Nicole Hosp (the silver medalist from the super combined) seemed to have it sewn up when she posted the fastest time with a come-from-behind effort that saw her nail the lower section. But her celebrations were short lived as teammate Fenninger immediately topped her time thanks to a near perfect execution of the Solitary Jump, maintaining her aerodynamic tuck while airborne before slicing through the soft snow and aggressively putting her head through a gate to stay on the tightest line possible.
Of course the two Austrians might have had a slight advantage over the field — their coach Florian Winkler set the corker of a course. Under Alpine rules, a randomly selected national team coach sets the race course, and they always try to play to their skiers' strengths.
However, Winkler's difficult set didn't help his country's star speed event skier Elisabeth Görgl, who looked poised for a medal before skiing out of the lower section and ending her day in tears.
Germany's Maria Höfl-Riesch looked ready to spoil the Austrian party by setting the fastest splits, but a low, ragged line out of the Solitary Jump relegated her to silver medal status.
Austria will undoubtedly be pleased with super-G gold and silver, which go along nicely with Matthias Mayer's gold in the men's downhill
. Alpine skiing is the biggest sport in the small country (imagine if everyone in America rooted for the New York Yankees and you'd understand Austria's level of ski racing fandom), but the highly decorated national team didn't do well (by their standards) in the Vancouver Olympics, with the men getting shutout of the medals and the women collecting "only" one gold. After being skewered by the press, it appears they're back on track with more medal opportunities sure to come.
Roles couldn't be more reversed for the hotly touted U.S. Ski Team. After collecting eight medals in the Vancouver Olympics, expectations were high for Sochi, but thus far only Mancuso has brought home the goods with her super combined bronze.
Just like disappointments in the men's downhill
and super combined
and the women's downhill
, Saturday's super-G shutout was another day to forget for American skiers. Aside from Mancuso's disappointing result, Stacey Cook crashed, Laurenne Ross skied off course and Leanne Smith (the first racer to make it down) finished a distant 18th.
In all, 18 women failed to complete the race.
Sunday sees the men tackling the super-G, and all eyes will be on Bode Miller and current World Champion Ted Ligety to see if America can start adding to its Alpine medal tally.
Published at 5:39 AM EST on Feb 15, 2014 | Updated at 9:11 PM EST on Feb 15, 2014