In foggy, rain-soaked conditions, Slovenia's Tina Maze won the women's giant slalom on Tuesday, narrowly defeating Austria's Anna Fenninger. It's 30-year old Maze's second gold of these Games, having already netted an historic first place tie in the downhill last week.
Competing in her first Olympics, America's Mikaela Shiffrin looked poised for the podium after finishing fifth in the opening leg. But the 18-year old phenom failed to make up ground on the leaders in run two and was forced to settle for a top five finish. With her inaugural Olympic event now out of the way, look for Shiffrin to shake any Sochi jitters and come up big in Friday's slalom, an event in which she's the overwhelming favorite.
Shiffrin's teammate Julia Mancuso — the surprise 2006 giant slalom gold medalist — struggled in the poor visibility and didn't finish her first run. Still, the American walks away from these Games with a bronze from the super combined
, the fourth Olympic medal of her storied career, and leaves Sochi with no regrets.
“I learned especially from the super-G that’s it’s the Olympics and you have to go for it,” said the always upbeat Mancuso.
In what seems to be the only consistent Alpine story line during these Olympics, weather again played a major role in determining the medals. Heavy snow hammered the top of the course, while racers were greeted by rain and fog 1,300 vertical feet below at the finish. As a result, the course deteriorated quickly, giving a distinct advantage to any racers lucky enough to draw early bibs.
No one benefited more than Maze. Running bib number one, the Slovenian set the early mark and no racer came within half a second of her first run time. Results from the opening leg more or less reflected the start order, with bib number two Jessica Lindell-Vikarby of Sweden sitting in second, bib number five Anna Fenninger (fresh off her stunning win in the super-G
) sitting in fourth and bib number six Shiffrin sitting in fifth. Italy's Nadia Fanchini was the only surprise, skiing to third from the tenth start position.
Time gaps told the real story, however, with sixth place and higher sitting well over a second behind Maze. The Slovenian would need the buffer if she hoped to hold on for the win, as the top 30 finishers would be reversed in the second run (always the rule in any two-run Alpine event), meaning she'd be running last of the contenders and forced to ski a chewed up course.
Set by the Italian coach (course setters are randomly selected from a pool of national team coaches), the second run featured tight, rhythmic turns that took skiers down a rolling upper section, over a difficult steep pitch and finally across a fast flat through the finish. To make matters more difficult, a thick fog rolled across the mid section of the slope, minimizing visibility, while intermittent snow squalls and a deluge of ice hampered some racers' runs.
Inclement weather made conditions inconsistent, and second run times reflected a battle with the elements. But one thing was certain: Soft snow conditions meant a light touch (rather than digging in one's edges as is typical in ski racing) and a savvy line were required to win. Of the early starters, only Switzerland's Lara Gut — arguably this season's most exciting skier on the Alpine World Cup Tour — laid down a near perfect run, rallying from an uncharacteristic 16th place in the opening leg to set the provisional best time, well over a second ahead.
It held, until the final nine skiers, each carrying a big lead over Gut from the first run. Charging from sixth position, defending giant slalom gold medalist Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany blitzed the course, recording the fastest second run time and taking the lead. Rebensburg would hold on for a well-earned bronze medal.
Next up was Shiffrin, who'd simply said between runs that she'd need to "ski faster" if she hoped to take a medal home. Carrying a 0.45 second lead over Rebensburg, the American looked unfazed in the start house, but once on course it was quickly evident that she lacked that extra edge to vie for a medal. Typically a clutch skier when the pressure mounts, Shiffrin hung on her edges a split second too long in each turn, skiing a conservative line over the critical steep pitch and bleeding precious hundredths of a second to Rebensburg at every split. She hit the line with the second fastest combined time. But with four more skiers still standing in the start house, Shiffrin's deflated look spoke volumes — she'd missed her shot at a first Olympic medal.
The American was quick to dissect her second run. "It boiled down to a couple turns, mostly on the pitch I think where I just slid my skis a little bit more and other girls arced it.”
Austria's Fenninger ended Rebensburg's short-lived lead, sneaking past the German with a smart, smooth second run. And after Fanchini and Lindell-Vikarby failed to hold onto their first run leads (they'd eventually finish fourth and seventh, respectively), it appeared as if the super-G champ would notch a second gold in these Games.
But ultimately, a second Gold would go to Maze. After lighting up the 2012-13 Alpine World Cup season with a bevy of record-shattering performances (leading to the overall title and a World Championship gold in super-G), the redoubtable Slovenian has had a relatively quiet season, netting only one win prior to Sochi. But just as she did in the downhill, Maze didn't let that dry spell hold her back in the second run of the giant slalom. Contending with a rough course, Maze — a five-event skier who doesn't train giant slalom as much as specialists like Rebensburg — put together a scrappy second run, losing time at every split but narrowly holding on to win by 0.07 seconds.
“It’s a great day for me, but not an easy day. As you can see, the weather is playing games with us,” a jubilant Maze told reporters in the rainy finish arena. “I don’t care if it’s raining, if it’s sunny. The slope was really good. In the first run, I knew I had to risk everything and then just fight to come down as fast as I could in the second.”