Coming into the 2017-18 season, there was an air of uncertainty surrounding Norway’s King of Speed, Aksel Lund Svindal. Two years ago, Svindal seemed untouchable in the speed disciplines. The Norwegian had won four of the first five downhills and three super-Gs that year and he looked well on his way to collecting more crystal globes that spring.
Then, in Kitzbuehel, Austria, disaster struck.
Following a stomach-turning crash in the notoriously challenging Hausberg section of the Hahnenkamm, Svindal was sidelined for the remainder of the 2015-16 season with a shredded ACL and meniscus.
With flat light and grippier snow than usual that day, a split-second loss of balance launched Svindal upside-down and into the netting on the most critical section of the hardest downhill in the world.
“Right off the top it’s all about courage,” says U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick of the storied Austrian venue. “All about who wants to push out of the start and take it down the fall-line. The Hausberg is also key to wining the race, you have to get the projection with speed; that projection across the traverse is what’s key to having the speed into the finish.”
By all accounts, Svindal’s recovery that spring and summer was going well given the severity of his injuries. That July, he announced his plan for a comeback on social media and expected to be back on snow less than two months later. However, when World Cup racing got underway, something just wasn’t right.
Despite starting his 2016-17 season with three podium finishes in downhill and super-G, lingering knee pain caused Svindal to pull out of the famed Lauberhorn races in Wengen, Switzerland. After Wengen, doctors discovered a torn meniscus and Svindal chose to end his season and undergo surgery, yet again.
In November, before the opening speed races of the season in Lake Louise, Canada, we were able to sit down with the big man in Copper Mountain, Colorado, and discuss his return, what he has yet to accomplish in his career, and what advice he would give himself as a young racer.
“Knee surgery is always a long recovery for a ski racer, but it’s actually been easier than the last one,” he shares. “The last one was everything and this one was just the meniscus so that was easier.”
Svindal has been off to a hot start this year, leading the downhill standings and capturing wins in Beaver Creek and Val Gardena, Italy, heading into the race week that took him out two years ago in Kitzbuehel.
It bodes well for Svindal, who won three Olympic medals (one of each color) in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In addition, he has a total eight World Championship medals, five of them gold, underscoring the threat he poses when he’s skiing well and healthy leading into a big event.
For all of Svindal’s numerous accolades, however, there are two glaring omissions. The Attacking Viking has not won either the Hahnenkamm or Olympic downhill gold. One could easily make the argument that he is the greatest downhiller to have yet to win either prestigious race. Given Svindal’s form this season, knocking both off his list this year are definite possibilities.
Race week in Kitzbuehel almost needs no introduction. The Hahnenkamm has had the reputation of being the hardest ski race in the world for the last 78 years. This year’s race is shaping up to be no different.
“You enter the town and there’s just this energy that’s really invigorating,” says American Downhiller Steven Nyman. “You have to bring it. Your focus gets heightened and everything just has to be in place if you want to even just ski well or make it down the thing. Kitzbuehel is so hard that it doesn’t feel good. It’s always so icy and brutal that you’re glad you’re in one piece at the finish.”
For Svindal, though, the venue of a race matters less to him than the number next to his name on the results sheet. In his book, a win is a win no matter where it happens.
“There’s always things to accomplish,” he says. “If I could pick two things right now that I wanted to do this winter, the number one thing happening this winter is the Olympics and after that is Kitzbuehel and Wengen. Since I have won Wengen, it would be cool to win Kitzbuehel, but it doesn’t work like that. You can’t really cherry-pick what you want to win.”
“The thing is, to me, if it’s Olympics or it’s the World Cup at Beaver Creek or anywhere else, it’s the best guys in the world at the start and to win that race you have to be faster than all the other guys,” he continues. “The accomplishment is just as big as long as there are fair conditions. For me, winning a race is just as big of an achievement no matter where it is because it’s the best guys in the world and you were fastest that day.”
Catch the rest of our interview with Svindal and hear him talk about Kitzbuehel and the upcoming Olympics in the video below: