It was a day of firsts — and lasts — on Saturday for the men’s World Championship downhill in Are, Sweden. With an unfavorable weather forecast and snow falling throughout the morning ultimately causing a one-hour delay to the start, many racers and fans were not expecting a race to happen at all. Minutes before the first racer was scheduled to take to the course, the wind died down, the fog started to lift, and the snow fell a little less hard as the new start time of 1:30pm was confirmed.
Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud kicked out of the start with bib six and it was apparent at the first split time that the Norwegians knew something about the Are slope that the rest of the field did not. Building on his advantage at each interval, swooping through the undulating terrain as the snow fell around him, Jansrud crossed the line with a massive 0.65 second advantage, breaking what had been up until that point a tight race wide open. Three bibs later, Jansrud’s compatriot and close friend, Aksel Lund Svindal, took to the course in his final race and nearly matched his teammate turn-for-turn before crossing the line a razor-slim 0.02 seconds back in second place for a dream finish to one of the most storied careers in recent memory. Austrian rising star and super-G silver medalist, Vincent Kriechmayr, rounded out the podium in third place for his second medal of the championships at 0.33 seconds back.
Jansrud suffered a broken hand during downhill training in Kitzbuehel, Austria, late last month and was in jeopardy of missing out on the World Championships all together after the initial diagnosis was given to him by doctors. Taping his left hand to his pole, Jansrud managed to dig deep on Saturday and walk away with his first World Championship gold medal.
“It effects your will in some ways because a little over two weeks ago, they said that I needed six weeks or at least four and it’s not going to be good enough for Are,” he explained after the race. “Somehow, you get this singular focus to make it happen. I’m not sure if that always helps but it for sure created some sort of very specific goal to work towards.”
The 33-year-old Norwegian has had tremendous success at big events in the past with five Olympic medals to his name including a super-G gold from Sochi 2014, but has not been able to find that same success at the World Championships. Saturday’s gold was only his third World Championship medal, not to mention his first win.
“It’s a title which is a great honor to have,” he continued. “It’s been a title which I’ve always wanted to be called, ‘World Champion,’ and now I can. It’s amazing and for me also, my first [World Championships] was Bormio in 2005. I’ve had a lot of chances and my fair share of opportunities to get the medals and get the gold and somehow the Olympics has been amazing to me with a lot of medals and World Championships has been a history of a few challenges. Sitting here on this day with my hand and all the things leading up to this, I expected to have less of a chance than ever so actually sitting here with the title is amazing.”
Svindal now walks away from the sport with four Olympic medals — two of them gold — nine World Championship medals, two Overall World Cup titles, nine discipline crystal globes, and 36 World Cup victories to his name. A deteriorating body eventually led the 36-year-old legend to come to the decision to retire last month in Kitzbuehel.
“I did my first World Cup in 2001 and my first World Championships was 16 years ago,” Svindal said. “It’s been a long journey and it’s been a great journey. In a way, it doesn’t feel strange to sit here and have my last press conference because it’s been so good and I’m very happy and thankful for what I’ve ben able to accomplish and be a part of. Ski racing is a great community and that’s all good stuff so why have any regrets?”
Svindal and Jansrud have stood on many podiums throughout the years, including another 1-2 finish in the Olympic downhill in PyeongChang 2018 where Svindal took gold and Jansrud the silver. For Svindal to finish his last race on the podium with his teammate good friend of nearly two decades is more than a fitting way for the legendary Norwegian to say goodbye.
“It’s a close race but it’s a great race,” he continued. “I’m very happy with this and coming in two-hundredths behind and seeing Jansrud leading Matthias Mayer by 65-hundredths, I was thinking that this could be a pretty good day for team Norway. The roles were switched last year at the Olympics where I got the gold just ahead of Kjetil so it was perfect. I’ve been kind of waiting for this moment for the last couple of weeks so I was nervous and I was ready to race. I didn’t want to push this race any more days because it builds up more and more after each day so I definitely wanted to race today. I usually think that this is one out of many chances so if I don’t get this one, I’ll get the next one and that was not the case today, this was the last one and that strategy did not work.”
Kriechmayr has a bit of a soft spot for Are as he also won both the super-G and downhill at last season’s World Cup finals at the Swedish venue. Now with two World Championship medals to his name on the same hill, the 27-year-old Austrian just might have found his favorite venue on the Tour.
“Really interesting race today,” Kriechmayr said after the race. “Snow falling everywhere and I’ve never started a race like this before but I’m really happy with a bronze medal. It’s been awesome, two medals and I like Are, of course! I was a little bit surprised to start today but I did the best I could and got out into the snow a little bit but was pretty fast. It was a big honor to race with Aksel in his last race because he is one of the nicest and fairest athletes in the World Cup. He is a very good sportsman.”
Canada’s Benjamin Thomsen was the fastest North American, finishing in seventh place, 0.75 seconds back.
The American Downhillers were led by Californian, Bryce Bennett, who finished in a tie for ninth place with Switzerland’s Mauro Caviezel, 0.83 seconds off the pace. Bennett continues to build on his momentum this season, solidifying his place among the world’s top downhillers with solid results throughout the entire season.
“It comes down to execution, for sure,” Bennett explained. “I did some parts well but I was having a hard time seeing what I needed to do this week. I spent a decent amount of time last night watching video and I think it paid off alright, I’m happy with today. It was a safe race but I’ve definitely never skied a downhill like that before, you couldn’t really see the tracks, it was just an inch or two of powder everywhere, it was different.”
Bennett was followed by Vermonter, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who finished in 12th place from bib 35 — a career-best downhill result — and was cheered on in the stands by his mother, Barbara Ann Cochran, who is the slalom gold medalist from the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
“Today was, I think for everyone, a really challenging day,” Cochran-Siegle said in the finish. “Tough for the early guys who had to deal with the holds and for us, I think there was a pretty good amount of snow coming down by the time the later guys ran. We all had tough conditions and I think, obviously, where I ended up, I’m incredibly pleased and I’m really happy with my skiing. I feel like my plan going into the race was just to try and nail a couple of sections and ski well. I really feel like I did that, which is cool to do at such a big event. It’s really special having [my mom] come here, we had a lot of support getting her here so it’s a nice way to send it and ski well.”
Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong rounded out the American starters in 23rd and 26th place, respectively.
With more adverse weather in the forecast for Are in the coming days, the men are currently scheduled to race alpine combined on Monday, February 11.
1. Kjetil Jansrud (NOR)- Head/Head/Head
2. Aksel Lund Svindal (NOR)- Head/Head/Head
3. Vincent Kriechmayr (AUT)- Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
4. Beat Feuz (SUI)- Head/Head/Head
5. Matthias Mayer (AUT)- Head/Head/Head
6. Dominik Paris (ITA)- Nordica/Nordica/Marker
7. Benjamin Thomsen (CAN)- Head/Head/Head
8. Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (NOR)- Head/Head/Head
9. Bryce Bennett (USA)- Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
9. Mauro Caviezel (SUI)- Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
For complete FIS results, please click here.