With tears in her eyes, Ilka Stuhec stood triumphantly back on top of the podium for the first time since March 2017, as the winner of the Val Gardena/Gröden downhill. In October later that year, Stuhec crashed during training and incurred an injury that left her sidelined for the 2017/18 season. So Tuesday on the podium, the Slovenian could not help but get emotional as she thought about how hard she had fought to find victory once again.
“I wanted this so bad since I started racing again and it was quite some pressure I put on myself, today I just said ‘okay I’ll take that backpack off and just ski and enjoy’. [After] everything that I have been through in the past year and a half, it was nice to be there again,” said Stuhec. “This is a huge dose of self-confidence again, so I hope that it lasts and I’ll enjoy skiing again like the way I did before.”
In addition to Stuhec’s comeback, there was much to celebrate during the award ceremony. The women’s circuit has not stopped in Val Gardena since 1975. Luckily for Italian Nicol Delago, it did in 2018. Delago calls Val Gardena home, so to finish on the podium for the first time in her career, surrounded by friends, family and neighbors has been an experience like nothing else.
“I’m so so happy, I’m happy to race at home and the fact that the race went so good – it’s incredible,” said the 22-year-old. “The people around me kept saying, ‘Nicol give everything you have, give your best’ and I did and it’s incredible for me.”
Delago’s run was a strong follow-up to a fifth-place finish in Lake Louise, her time being the only one to come remotely close to Stuhec, 0.14 seconds back. Over half of the top 10 finished at least nine-tenths away from the Slovenian.
Ramona Siebenhofer finished third, stepping up onto the podium for the second time in her career. Siebenhofer led the Austrian women, who once again were able to squeeze a minimum of four women into the top 10. Mirjam Puchner finished sixth, followed by Stephanie Venier in seventh, and Nicole Schmidhofer in 10th. Overall all eight of the Austrian women finished in the top 25. After a strong showing in Lake Louise, the Austrians continue to prove that they are the team to watch in the downhill this season.
“I think we are a great team. The whole center of the team, all seven girls. We have good coaches, we have good communication in our team and everyone works [together] good. Everybody is fun and it’s awesome to be the way these great guys and girls,” said Siebenhofer.
After the cancellation of the races in Val d’Isere, there was some concern amongst the athletes regarding the replacement track. The Saslong track is one of the more famous tracks on the men’s circuit, known for its terrain and jumps that send some athletes flying as far as 20 feet. But on Tuesday, the women’s course looked a bit different. The notorious “camel humps” had been flattened to remove the lips of the rollers, and the jumps were less extreme. In addition, the women started below the men’s super-G reserve start, so they carried less speed as they charged into the terrain.
While the rollers and jumps were still present, the features looked nothing like what many of the women had prepared for. Athletes had watched the men’s races in preparation, expecting to race on a track that would test their downhill prowess in new ways. The diminished features came as a pleasant surprise.
“Before the first training, I had quite some respect for the run,” said the winner, Ilka Stuhec. “But once I started and went with the flow it turned out to be really fun. Because of the start and the hard new parts that we don’t usually have in downhills, it was not that fast at all, so we could really work well over that and I liked it a lot.”
American Alice Merryweather also had different expectations coming into training.
“The snow here is amazing, and the course itself was a blast. The terrain – I was worried it was going to be really extreme and I was going to be all over the place but it’s actually really nice, really fun,” said Merryweather. “The men have always said it’s super fun, I know Byrce [Bennett] and Steve [Nyman] have always said it’s their favorite, so I came in with an open mind and I’ve just been enjoying every run I’ve taken.”
Merryweather finished 27th overall, which came as a disappointment after a 5th place finish in her third training run early Tuesday morning. She reported feeling some pressure on her and her teammate Laurenne Ross who are the only women present in Val Gardena to represent the United States, especially since the American men typically perform well on the Saslong. Despite feeling the race could have gone better, the 22-year-old is optimistic.
“It’s only getting better. I’m getting more and more confident, more comfortable holding my own against the rest of these girls, so I’m just looking to keep building on it,” she said after the race.
The women will race super-G in Val Gardena/Gröden at 11:30 CET on Wednesday, December 19th.
1. Ilka Stuhec (SLO) +1:22.81 – Stoeckli/Lange
2. Nicol Delago (ITA) +0.14 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
3. Ramona Siebenhofer (AUT): +0.51 – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
4. Jasmine Flury (SUI): +0.87 – Stoeckli/Lange
5. Michaela Wenig (GER): +0.89 – Stoeckli/Lange
6. Mirjam Puchner (AUT): +0.96 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
7. Stephanie Venier (AUT): +1.16 – Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
8. Lara Gut-Behrami (SUI): +1.18 – Head/Head/Head
10. Nicole Schmidhofer (AUT): +1.20 – Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
For complete FIS results, click here.