Saturday, the men’s World Cup tech circuit took on the soft slopes of Niigata Yuzawa Naeba, Japan, a track that proved to produce interesting results. Going into the second run of giant slalom, Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen led by 0.67 seconds, a pace that seemed like a shoo-in for a podium finish. But by the end of the race, the podium looked much different than expected with Croatia’s Filip Zubcic standing on the top step, followed by Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt, and USA’s Tommy Ford. Zubcic jumped 11 positions to earn his win, Ford jumped seven. Odermatt was the only man of the day to hold a similar position to his first run results.

The variation in finishes largely was due to variable course conditions. The first run of the day consisted of what Zubcic called “sugar snow” β€” the kind of snow that is so moist, that salt does not take well to its structure. After the first few men ran, there was not much left for the remainder of the field to work with. For guys who favor firmer conditions, like Tommy Ford, it took a run to figure out just what kind of pressure needed to be applied in order to make a turn that was not only pretty but fast.

Ford, who hails from Bend, Oregon, knows a thing or two about skiing in soft, wet snow. The Pacific Northwest is notorious for serving up those kinds of conditions. While they are not conditions typically seen on the World Cup tour, Ford knew going into the second run if he wanted to hang on to a top 10 position, that we would have to dig deep into the archives and execute the kind of skiing he mastered back in the day. Luckily, the salt was more effective during the second run, so Ford did not have to put up as much of a fight as he thought. Yet still, making the podium came as a surprise after finishing 10th in the first run.

Ford started the season out strong, winning his first World Cup at the age of 30 on home snow in Beaver Creek. Looking back on the 2018-19, Ford had been incredibly consistent. He finished 10th overall in the giant slalom, the best result of his career. A win in Beaver Creek marked the pinnacle of his hard work and the slow build of success he had created throughout his time ski racing. Then post-Beaver Creek, Ford started to receive a kind of attention he was not used to. The pressure to repeat his success was now on for the rest of the season, and Ford was unable to finish within the top 10 again until the parallel giant slalom in Chamonix the weekend prior to Yuzawa Naeba. A third-place in Japan is only the second podium of Ford’s career. Now Ford is sitting pretty in the giant slalom standings, ranked fifth overall, just 50 points behind Zan Kranjec.

“I’m really grateful for that victory I had in Beaver Creek and afterward because it was a bit of a struggle to deal with the extra attention from that and ground myself again, It’s been a bit of struggle to find that consistency again and I’m thankful for that struggle because it was a big learning experience that I haven’t had before. And to ski onto the podium on a day like this, I’m pretty psyched.”

The fact that Ford has struggled to find consistency throughout the 2019-20 is clear looking through his results, but not at all just by observing his demeanor. Ford is known to be one of the quieter, calmer guys on the tour. Or at least, that’s how he is perceived. In fact, Ford says what’s going on on the outside, is not a direct reflection of what is happening in his head and in his heart.

“I may look calm on the outside but I don’t have a problem getting my excitement up for a race, my heart is pounding in the start and all sorts of nerves come up,” explained Ford. “I’d say I work hard to stay calm. I really enjoy skiing and races like this I really gotta be aware of what’s happening all around you, there are all different changes in the snow and it’s worth really ignoring all the thoughts and really tuning in.”

Looking ahead, the American’s got one thing on his mind, keeping it simple.

“My goal is to stay connected and really continue with this consistency that I’ve been working on for years and enjoy these moments and keep working – simple.”

Tommy Ford of USA takes 3rd place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men’s Giant Slalom on February 22, 2020, in Yuzawa Naeba Japan. (Photo by Francis Bompard/Agence Zoom)

In comparison to 30-year-old Ford, 27-year-old Zubcic and 22-year-old Odermatt have catapulted to success. Whereas the American has slowly built his success and demonstrated slow but consistent improvement, the other two podium finishers have not had much to show in terms of results prior to the past couple of seasons.

In 2018, Odermatt exploded onto the scene, nearly sweeping the World Junior Championships in Davos, winning the downhill, the super G, the alpine combined, and the giant slalom. His success built high anticipation for his return to the World Cup and Odermatt executed, earning three giant slalom podium finishes in 2019, just a year after. Odermatt then went on to win his first-career World Cup race in Beaver Creek at the beginning of 2019-20, beating Aleksander Kilde in the super G by one-tenth of a second.

In December, Odermatt suffered an injury to his right knee during the second run of giant slalom in Alta Badia, Italy, despite finishing fifth in the race. An additional evaluation revealed the young Swiss man had torn his outer meniscus but did not require surgery. Just a month later, Odermatt was back competing in Kitzbuehel, where he finished 13th in the super G. Yuzawa Naede marks Odermatt’s first time back in the top 10 and on the podium after his injury.

“I think I have to say a big thanks to my home team, we worked really hard the past couple of weeks and months,” said Odermatt. “It started the day after my injury so we could progress really fast. I could ski after four weeks and then step by step I came back into race mode.”

Zubcic has some years on Odermatt, although he has not been on the World Cup quite as long as Ford. Either way, Zubcic has not shown his fast training in a race until the 2019-20 season. Yuzawa Naede is his first-ever victory, making him the first Croatian man to have ever won in the giant slalom. It also marks the first Croatian win on the World Cup in over seven years, and by a skier outside of the family name Kostelic to boot. Zubcic’s first podium came to be in the Adelboden giant slalom back in January.

Second-place finisher Marco Odermatt and first-place finisher Filip Zubcic exchange congratulations in the finish of the Yuzawa Naeba giant slalom. Photo: Agence Zoom.

“From the beginning [of the season], I knew I could have good results because I was skiing really good in the summer trainings,” said Zubcic. “In Soelden I didn’t finish but I was focused, I knew I could ski good and hard. After Beaver Creek, Alta Badia, it was my first podium in Adelboden. I was fourth in Garmisch, so close to the podium and today I won the race. I knew that I can win this race, maybe not today, but this season because I was skiing all the time really good.”

Last season, Zubcic said he knew the fast skiing was there, but not all of the factors were lining up quite right. After taking extensive time to tamper with boots, skis, and bindings, during the summer, he came into fall training with full confidence in his set-up. He knew 2019/20 would be the season he would finally put all the pieces of the puzzle together and do right by his team, his family, and his country, jumping 11 places from first to second run to take the win.

“This win is dedicated to my team and my family. My mother was a skier in Yugoslavia and she taught me how to ski so I’ve been racing for 21 years and the family has never failed to support me,” said Zubcic.

On Sunday the men take on the slalom in Japan. First run can be streamed on the olympicchannel.com and NBC Sports Gold starting at 7:40 pm EST. Second run can be watched live on the Olympic Channel at 10:40 pm EST.

Top 10

  1. Filip Zubcic (CRO): 2:37.25
  2. Marco Odermatt (SUI): +0.74
  3. Tommy Ford (USA): +1.07
  4. Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen (NOR): +1.13
  5. Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR): +1.14
  6. Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (NOR): +1.15
  7. Victor Muffat-Jeandet (FRA): +1.16
  8. Thibaut Favrot (FRA): +1.24
  9. Zan Kranjec (SLO): +1.31
  10. Luca de Aliprandini (ITA): +1.42

For full FIS results, click here.

Born and raised in Metro-Detroit, Michigan, Mackenzie grew up ski racing all over the Mitten.​ When s​he moved out west in search of mountains, she attended the University of Oregon, where she achieved degrees in Journalism and Environmental Science. She raced USCSA and was captain of the UO Alpine Ski Team. She currently resides in Salt Lake City and serves as the Women's World Cup Staff Writer for Ski Racing Media.