The women’s World Cup downhill tour returned after more than a month’s hiatus to one of the most demanding tracks the athletes will face this season. The race at Altenmarkt-Zauchensee proved to be a distinct departure from the well-known turns and jumps of Lake Louise, and only a few were able to make the necessary adjustments in time to land atop the results list.
Corinne Suter, of Switzerland, was the best of the few. She was building steadily on her breakout season last winter where she found her first World Cup podium and then earned two medals at the World Ski Championships. Heading into Saturday’s race, she had finished top five in six of the last seven downhill races to demonstrate formidable consistency.
Weather is often an issue for speed races in Zauchensee, and Saturday’s downhill was threatened by the curse. Cloud cover and thick fog forced the race organizers and FIS officials to lower the start to the second reserve position at Hot Air, eliminating nearly 30 seconds and 12 gates from the course that athletes used for their two training runs during the week. This move also cut out the breathtaking Startschuss where skiers literally drop out of the start house in spectacular fashion, reaching speeds in excess of 100 kilometers (or 62 miles) per hour in just five seconds. From the Hot Air start, competitors were spit into the midst of a course they had become acquainted with but were traveling at much slower speeds and with much more on the line through the technical, sweeping turns of the Wasserschloss and sections below.
Suter attacked out of the start and showed superb air awareness with a long but compact jump off the Jägersprung, traveling almost 10 meters further than all others. She was also quick to return to her low tuck and maintained an aggressive yet clean line as the technical demands increased. She clocked a winning time of 1:18.79 to claim her career-first World Cup win and take the lead in the downhill season standings. Raising her hands high in the air in the finish corral, she knew despite an early bib that she had put down the run to beat. Regarded as an athlete who put extreme pressure on herself in past seasons, she is certainly enjoying the process more this winter. As subsequent competitors took to the course and delays persisted through the first twelve starters, Suter sat in the leader box with an ear-to-ear grin.
“After the World Championships, it took a lot of pressure off of me. Since then, I can ski again with a lot of fun and I think this is the reason why I am so fast at the moment,” Suter noted following the win. “It’s a special feeling also to wear the red bib. It’s always a dream to win the big globe. But I’ll take it step by step and now race by race, so we will see what happens at the end.”
Her teammate Michelle Gisin, whose sister Dominique was the last female racer from Switzerland to win a downhill on Austrian soil in 2009 (tying Anja Paerson for the victory in Zauchensee that year), skied a smooth and dynamic, albeit slightly tamer, run to join Suter on the podium in third. Gisin was inspired by her boyfriend Luca De Aliprandini’s opening run in Adelboden, where he led the men’s World Cup giant slalom prior to Gisin’s race (but failed to finish the second run). Her finish back on the speed podium for the first time this winter proved to be the bright spot in the day’s races.
“Today I showed that I’m back skiing really [well] in speed. I had really good training sessions this summer. I skied also really well in super-G in Ushuaia with Mikaela [Shiffrin] and the Italian guys. That was for sure the best training this summer,” Gisin said, adding that she expected stronger speed results earlier this season. “I’m really glad that today I had from top to bottom a pretty good run … [but] the two other girls were just in another sphere today. Corinne showed an amazing run that couldn’t be any better, and that’s really cool that we can be two on the podium.”
While many expected at least one Austrian to finish in the top three, Italy’s Nicol Delago scorched into second place to spoil the party for the crowd. She finished 0.29 seconds off the lead after making up considerable time by skiing the fastest final section from the last intermediate, over the Zielsprung, and across the finish line. The World Cup tour has less experience in Zauchensee, contesting races there only twice in the previous five seasons. But Delago relied on her history of also racing European Cup on the slope to help her find speed.
“I really enjoy this slope because I have good memories from here from the past years on the European Cup and the World Cup, so I am very happy,” Delago reflected.
The Austrian squad had to settle for Stephanie Venier’s ninth-place result as its top finish on the day. Although the home team stacked six finishers into the top 15, their positions at the bottom of that count fell short of expectations heading into the morning.
The U.S. Ski Team continued to build on its return from injury, and Breezy Johnson was content with first race back in 667 days. Johnson posted the fastest run for the Americans in 25th place, but more importantly she shook off the cobwebs in her return to the World Cup.
“It was a tough day out there. The light was not so great for some, especially Merryweather, when she came down before it kind of brightened up a little bit,” said Johnson, reflecting on her teammate’s conditions. “I think (the team is) feeling good. We’re training well. We just haven’t put all the pieces together. I’m obviously very excited to lead the team, be back in points and be back racing, doing what I love. I think we’ll start to put it together in the next few weeks here.”
Teammates Alice McKennis and Jackie Wiles, also on the return, finished in the points in 26th and 27th position, respectively.
The women’s tour will contest an alpine combined race on Sunday in Zauchensee consisting of one run of super-G and one run of slalom. Overall leader Mikaela Shiffrin opted out of the downhill in favor of training for the combined, and she is among the favorites in the event.
“I don’t really have any expectations for Sunday’s race,” Shiffrin said on Friday according to the U.S. Ski Team. “Mostly because I haven’t been on this hill before, and I haven’t trained much super-G since St. Moritz. So it’s really just going in and having some fun.”