One year ago, Germany’s Stefan Luitz was at the top of his game. The 26-year-old German had just captured third place in the Beaver Creek giant slalom and would finish runner-up at the formidable Val d’Isere GS one week later. Just before Christmas in Alta Badia, Italy, Luitz’s momentum and season came to a screeching halt after suffering a torn left ACL four gates into the GS at the legendary venue.
350 days later, Luitz returned to Colorado with a vengeance and stunned the field en route taking the win on Sunday in his first GS race since his injury. Luitz did not qualify for a second run in his first race back – the slalom in Levi, Finland – last month. Luitz bested the likes of Austrian legend Marcel Hirscher in second, 0.14 seconds back, and surprise third-place finisher, Switzerland’s Thomas Tumler, who charged all the way from bib 48 to finish on the podium.
“It’s unbelievable,” an exhausted Luiz shared in the finish. “The first run felt crazy, but this one, to cross the finish line in the lead is unbelievable. I’m so happy. I just focused on my skiing. I tried to do the same as in the first run and I did some really big mistakes but I’m on the top of the podium so it’s great.”
The fact that Luitz was able to overcome the mental barriers associated with coming back from a season-ending injury makes Sunday’s performance all the more impressive. Luitz also tore his ACL in 2013, although it was in his right knee, and knew what it took to return to the top of the World Cup yet again.
“I’m feeling really, really good,” he shared. “To come back after this injury and to win the first race of the season is unbelievable. My body and my knee is feeling really, really good and I’m really happy about that. It’s a really hard injury but I knew that I can come back as strong as I was before and I pushed so hard with my whole team and everybody and we made it possible to stand on top of the podium. I thank all my coaches and my dad as my serviceman and everyone who made this possible. My dad and I have been working together for a long, long time so he knows exactly what I need and I know that when I’m at the start, everything is one-hundred percent perfect.”
Hirscher looked to be on his way to a come-from-behind win with the lead over Luitz as the German approached the finish, but he managed to navigate the Red Tail jump ever so slightly cleaner than Hirscher and was able to sneak ahead of the seven-time Overall champion in the final turns.
“I can only bring this skiing at this high level during racing,” Hirscher said. “In training, I’m definitely not the best. I think I have to be absolutely one-hundred percent happy because there were two close calls, definitely, so I am supper happy to be flying back with 80 points in my pocket so it is perfect.”
“I think Stefan has maybe one of the hardest roads to the first victory of all World Cup athletes with so many injuries,” he added of his competitor. “He’s been skiing more than seven or eight years on a really high level so he deserved it, definitely.”
Tumler was just as shocked as everyone else to see himself standing on the podium with the likes of Luitz and Hirscher. The Swiss sat in 21st after the first run and went unmatched in the second en route to his first World Cup podium.
“It’s amazing, I can’t describe my feeling,” Tumler said after the race. “It’s just amazing to be on the podium with Marcel, the best giant slalom skier of the last maybe five years. It feels great. I trained with Marcel for one day and I think maybe that was the difference today. Mauro Caviezel is my roommate here and I saw his nice Birds of Prey picture and I told him that I must have a picture like this and now I have one, it’s amazing.”
“At first, I was thinking it would be good to be in the top 15,” he added of his wait in the leader’s box. “As the guys were coming down, I saw that the course was suffering a little bit and I started to think that a top five would be great. In the end, it was a podium.”
It was a day of encouraging performances by the Americans as four athletes were led into the top 22 by Ted Ligety in a tie for eighth place.
“It’s always nice to get the season going,” Ligety said. “It would have been nice to get it going in Soelden so you can kind of re-acclimate to racing before coming here but it was fun to race here, it’s always fun with this crowd but just not quite the skiing I wanted to have. The last two years has been super straight course sets and having two turny ones today was definitely an adjustment that needs to be taken into consideration.”
The technical nature of both the first and second run course sets were a topic of discussion on Sunday, with GS sets erring on the straighter side in the last few years. Sunday’s sets in Beaver Creek made athletes work for every ounce of speed.
Following Ligety in 15th was Tommy Ford, who pulled out of Saturday’s super-G with back pain. First-time scorer and reigning NCAA and NorAm GS champion Brian McLaughlin finished in 18th after two strong runs and Ryan Cochran-Siegle continued to chip away at the GS rankings with a 22nd place finish.
“It was awesome,” Ligety said of having three teammates join him in the top-30. “I’m really close with that group of guys and it’s been fun incorporating Brian into our group and awesome to see him step up on a race day. It’s been a little while since one of the guys who’s been an invitee came in and actually got in there. He’s been skiing fast all summer in training and I’m pretty excited to have another guy in there.”
McLaughlin made his World Cup debut last year in Beaver Creek and Sunday was only the Massachusetts native’s second World Cup start.
“This has to be one of the better days [in my career],” added McLaughlin, who skis independent of the U.S. Ski Team. “It was a lot of fun, just trying to go hard and I was hoping to get in the points today and I’m pretty happy with it. NCAA is so cool with it having a team atmosphere and you’re going for 11 other guys but this one was important too; I really wanted to come down and move up again. Starting off like this in my second career World Cup is great, just trying to get some momentum going this year and gives me some confidence so I can punch it in the next ones.”
The men’s tour now heads to Europe for the remainder of the season with slalom and GS races in Val d’Isere, France, scheduled for Dec. 8-9.
1. Stefan Luitz (GER)- Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
2. Marcel Hirscher (AUT)- Atomic/Atomic/Atomic
3. Thomas Tumler (SUI)- Fischer/Fischer/Fischer
4. Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR)- Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
5. Loic Meillard (SUI)- Rossignol/Rossignol/Look
6. Matts Olsson (SWE)- Head/Head/Head
7. Mathieu Faivre (FRA)- Head/Head/Head
8. Riccardo Tonetti (ITA)- Blizzard/Tecnica/Marker
8. Ted Ligety (USA)- Head/Head/Head
10.Victor Muffat-Jeandet (FRA)- Salomon/Salomon/Salomon
For complete FIS results, please click here.