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Swiss Alpine Team Looks for Answers as Sochi Nears

Switzerland has two men's Olympic champions preparing to defend their titles in Sochi next February

By GRAHAM DUNBAR
|  Sunday, Oct 20, 2013  |  Updated 3:05 PM EDT
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In this Feb. 15, 2010 file photo, Switzerland's Didier Defago reacts after completing the Men's downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. Like a true power of Alpine skiing should, Switzerland has two men's Olympic champions preparing to defend their titles in Sochi in February, 2014.

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As befitting an Alpine skiing power, Switzerland has two men's Olympic champions preparing to defend their titles in Sochi next February. The country, however, is also coming off an especially bad run of results.

The Swiss team — led by 2010 Vancouver gold medalists Didier Defago and Carlo Janka — finished with no world championships medals and not a single World Cup victory during the 2012-13 season.

"Last season was a bad one for Switzerland and for me also," Janka, the Olympic giant slalom champion, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

How bad? Add up every World Cup point earned by 17 different Swiss men's racers, and it would still only be enough to finish fifth in the individual overall standings. In the actual standings, Defago was Switzerland's best in 30th place.

Their single podium finish was Janka's third place in super-combined at home in Wengen in January.

"We have a little more homework to do maybe than other nations or other athletes," said Janka, basking in the 82-degree heat in sight of the snow-capped Matterhorn mountain.

That homework began days after the final race, when the Swiss Ski federation appointed Austrian coaches to lead the team.

"In the spring, we talked a lot — too much for me," Defago said, referring to a debriefing involving coaches, racers, team ski technicians and equipment manufacturers. "In the bad situation maybe it was good for everybody because everybody came again (with) what we have to do to be better."

Janka acknowledges that the problems were "difficult to understand and analyze" — especially after four Swiss men won races by the end of December the previous season. The first indication of whether their analysis was correct comes in Soelden, Austria, next weekend at a season-opening giant slalom.

"You have to look forward, what's happened in the past has happened," said Janka, the overall World Cup champion in 2010. "There are big changes in the team. I think that will be good after last season."

Indeed, Janka seems more concerned about prospects for his favorite soccer team, Manchester United. After the retirement of manager Alex Ferguson, Janka notes that first seasons can be difficult under new leadership.

Janka's own team takes that route with head coach Walter Hlebayna replacing Osi Inglin, who was ousted after two years in charge.

"I'm happy with the coaches," Janka said. "Preparation until now was good. Also with the health, everything is fine. I am on the right way."

At 26, Janka's health issues have included an irregular heartbeat and unexplained offseason fatigue.

"Summer is no guarantee that the winter will be great," Janka said, smiling. "My best season (2010), I had less training than every season before in preparation."

Four years ago, Defago began his Olympic season by breaking his right thumb while training in Zermatt, and missed the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden. Last season, he peaked early with a fifth-place finish on the glacier course behind a dominant Ted Ligety of the United States.

"It was my best season start but, after, it wasn't my best season," he joked.

The 36-year-old Defago aims to become a four-time Olympian in Sochi and feels equipped to handle the challenge.

"You know, really the race is only a small part," said Defago, who edged Aksel Lund Svindal and Bode Miller on a stellar downhill podium at Vancouver. "You have all the organization outside the race. All the media there, all the questions. All the mental preparation as well."

This could be Defago's final season on tour, and only after it will the man who keeps his Olympic gold medal by the fireplace at home reflect on how Switzerland cherishes its Alpine champions.

"Everybody says, 'Olympic champion is for all the life.' But at the moment, when you are in the circus, it's difficult to realize," he said. "At the moment, I watch the Sochi race from two years ago more often than the Vancouver race from four years ago."

In February 2012, the World Cup downhill that tested the new Olympic course at Rosa Khutor was a good day for the Swiss. Beat Feuz, returning now after missing last season with knee injuries, won then on an icy surface, Janka was fifth and Defago 10th. Miller placed fourth.

"I learned a lot but not enough," Defago recalled, laughing. "It's a nice course, I like it. It's not easy. You have every element from downhill."

Still, Soelden is just the first of 27 scheduled World Cup events before arriving in Russia, and skiers know not to look too far ahead.

"For the athletes, the Olympics starts when it starts. Not now," Janka cautioned.

Before February, Switzerland has much to prove, against improving rivals such as the typically strong Austrians, a deep U.S. squad with Miller returning and a young Italian speed group.

"I know it's a big season, an important season," Defago said. "Maybe for all the team."

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