Just under one year ago, Germany’s Thomas Dressen sat in a hospital room in Vail, Colorado, looking down at his shredded right knee. Earlier that day, the 2018 Hahnenkamm downhill champion crashed out in the Beaver Creek downhill, tearing his right ACL, PCL, and dislocating his left shoulder, his cries of pain echoing through the trees as he lay tangled in the safety netting.

Dressen was a man on the rise in World Cup downhill and had enjoyed the best season of his career the year before, capturing two wins and two additional podiums, including his thrilling come-from-behind victory in Kitzbuehel. The tall German looked to have only gotten faster, with strong results at the start the season indicating that he could be a major player in the race for the downhill crystal globe. All of that momentum came to a screeching halt in a cloud of snow that December day in Colorado.

Fast forward to Saturday’s World Cup men’s downhill opener in Lake Louise, Canada, and the 26-year-old Dressen stepped back into the starting gate for the first time since his crash. Two days prior in the opening training run, Dressen finished a lackluster 61st but managed to rebound with a fifth in the second and final training run on Friday. Donning bib 13 on race day, it’s hard to believe that many of his competitors saw him as a serious threat as he stood in the starting gate and the countdown began.

Dressen soars to a comeback victory in lake Louise. Photo: GEPA pictures/Mario Kneisl

The top two downhillers from the 2019 season, Switzerland’s Beat Feuz and Italy’s Dominik Paris, had just dueled their way down the sun-soaked track with Paris edging out his Swiss rival by just over two-tenths of a second thanks to a stellar gliding performance on the bottom flats. Dressen’s opening split time saw him 0.33 seconds back mere moments into his run and no alarm bells were going off in Paris’ head as he sat comfortably in the leader’s chair.

Dressen then began to methodically pick his way down the deceivingly simple Lake Louise track, slowly pulling back time turn after turn before clocking in at just 0.16 seconds behind at the final split time. A 15-second drag race from the final turn to the finish line proved to be the deciding factor for Dressen as line choice, fast skis, and aerodynamics combined to give the German a razor-slim 0.02 second lead as he crossed the finish line. Raising his hands in triumph, Dressen was back on the World Cup in a big way.

“It’s just crazy,” an elated Dressen shared in the finish. “If somebody told me that I would even finish top 10 or top 15, that would have been great for me, a great result. To be honest, right now I have no words because it’s just overwhelming. I don’t know what to say. After yesterday, after the second training, I was sure that I have good speed so I just had to stay loose and just ski like I can and just have fun. I think today was perfect.”

By Dressen’s own admission, he only became comfortable with race speed in the final weeks leading up to the season during the German team’s training in Copper Mountain, Colorado, earlier this month. With how little time on downhill skis Dressen has under his belt, Saturday’s win becomes even more impressive.

“It’s been the small steps, you know?” he said of his recovery. “The first time really walking without crutches, then being able to go up stairs and down stairs without pain, which is still a little bit of a problem sometimes, then first time back on skis. I was struggling a little bit and to be honest, to be really sure that I could compete again in World Cup and maybe be successful was just in the last few weeks.”

With such a quick return to top form, Dressen says that he has already achieved his season goal and can now ski the rest of the year stress-free and see where the rest of the races take him.

“The main target for me this season was just to get back to where I was and with this result right now, I think it doesn’t matter what else comes the rest of the season because I can be happy and just have fun,” he said.

Paris, who nearly walked away with last season’s downhill crystal globe if not for a couple of inconsistent results, saw plenty of positives come out of Saturday as he undoubtedly has his sights set on more World Cup titles come World Cup Finals in March.

“It was very good, I’m very happy with second place,” Paris said in the finish. “I tried to stay close to the fastest guys and I’m also very happy with my skiing, it was pretty good. Close result, but a very good start for the season and I’m happy. I think at some points I could have done better, but on the bottom section Thomas was very fast, he did a very good job in the last turn and brought the speed to the bottom. I think I lost some hundredths there. The middle part was good skiing but I can do a little bit better there too. I think it’s more than good today.”

It was a crowded downhill podium in Lake Louise. Photo: GEPA pictures/Wolfgang Grebien

The Swiss men started their season off on a positive note with Janka and Feuz sharing third place, as well as Mauro Caviezel finishing in a solid sixth place to start his season. Feuz did not finish worse than sixth last season en-route to his second consecutive downhill title and looks to be on that same form early this year.

“It was a perfect start for me,” Janka said, who enjoyed his first podium appearance since 2017. “It was not a very good preseason for me because my back had some problems and now to start with a podium when it goes like that is pretty good and gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.”

Janka also managed to win both training runs earlier in the week. Although not always the best indicator of success on race day, Janka admitted that his strong times gave him a much-needed confidence boost on Saturday.

“When you’re fast in the trainings, it always gives you confidence that anything is possible and I tried to make a good run today. A podium is always good and I’ll take it for sure.”

The top American Downhiller honors on Saturday were shared by veterans Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong, who finished in a tie for 10th place, 1.31 seconds back. Bryce Bennett was the next American in 23rd and was followed by Jared Goldberg and Ryan Cochran-Siegle in a tie for 30th. Thomas Biesemeyer just missed the points in 33rd and Kyle Negomir, Sam Morse, and Wiley Maple finished 53rd, 54th, and 61st, respectively.

Benjamin Thomsen was the top Canadian in 30th place.

The men now race super-G in Lake Louise on Sunday, December 1. Start time is scheduled for 12:15 pm MTN.

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A Lake Tahoe native and University of Vermont graduate, Higgins was a member of the Catamounts' 2012 NCAA title winning squad and earned first team All-American honors in 2013. Prior to coming to Ski Racing Media, he coached U14s for the Squaw Valley Ski Team.