Men's Combined: Vail, Colorado
For the first time since the World Alpine Ski Championships started more than a week ago, the Austrians got skunked.
Instead, the two-day menís combined title came down to a shootout between boyhood friends and ski racing rivals Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, two Norwegians who pushed aside the Austrians to take their moment in the Vail sun.
Aamodt hung on through a sloppy second slalom run on Vailís steep International course to defend his 1997 Worlds combined title. Holding a slim lead over Kjus coming into the final slalom run, Aamodt knew his main rival for the gold medal was also one of his best friends.
"I saw Lasse at the start and he was aggressive. I knew I had to do the same to beat him," said Aamodt, who finished Mondayís downhill run and two slalom runs Tuesday in 2 minutes, 43.09 seconds. "Iím really motivated when Lasse skis well. I think we motivate each other when we have good results."
Kjus and Aamodt are rare in international skiing circles. Not only are they among the few skiers whoíve won major races in all disciplines, the pair have remained close friends, even sharing hotel rooms on the World Cup circuit for 10 years.
Theyíve been racing against each other since they were six, coming through the ranks of the Norwegian ski team to reach the highest level of international competition.
Theyíve had parallel careers. Aamodt won the overall World Cup title in 1994, skiingís measuring stick of the best all-around skier. Kjus followed up with his own title in 1996. Theyíve both enjoyed success at the Winter Olympics and shared three World Championship medals going into Tuesdayís duel on Vail Mountain.
"Iím happy for him. He motivates me. Itís really good to train with him. It helps me a lot. Itís great to see him have success, too. Heís around the top in the world," Kjus said after finishing second, just .16 seconds back. "I saw my split times. I had my doubts on my skiing at the bottom of the course. I wasnít surprised Kjetil beat me."
Kjus skied just before Aamodt, who held the lead after the first slalom run, and posted the second-fastest time in the final run. Although Aamodt made one mistake on Pepiís Face, already hidden in the shadows on a beautiful sunny day in Vail, he had enough cushion to hold off Kjus to take his first gold of these Worlds.
"The last medal tastes the best always. It was really fun to win today after leading after the first slalom," said Aamodt, who will go against Kjus and the rest of the menís field in Fridayís giant slalom.
The combined, as the name implies, is the combined time of a downhill run and two slalom runs. Typically held only during the Worlds and the Olympics, the combined title always comes down to who can perform the best in the slalom leg. The fastest in Mondayís downhill run, Switzerlandís Bruno Kernan, faltered on the slalom, posting the 9th fastest times in each run and finished 5th.
Austrian giant slalom and slalom specialist Christian Mayer finished just off the podium in 4th at 2:43.89. He skied strong, finishing 1st and 3rd in the two slalom runs, but couldnít make up the time he lost in Mondayís downhill. Still, Mayer is expected to continue the Austrian medal blitzkrieg during the menís technical events later this week.
Finishing a surprising 3rd at .53 seconds back was Swiss veteran Paul Accola, a silver medalist in the combined 10 years ago when Vail hosted the Worlds in 1989. Sixth in the downhill Monday, Accola ripped both slalom runs, posting the second-fastest in the opening run and the fastest time in the final run. It was a sweet podium for the 32-year-old who held the overall World Cup title in 1992 and battled through injuries in the mid-1990s.
"Iím really glad to be on the podium here again 10 years later. I had a great slalom run. You can only win the combined in the slalom," Accola said. "Itís a great accomplishment to win this medal. It means more to me. Everything is harder now than in the past."
Jakub Fiala was the only American to finish all three runs. Bode Miller was disqualified in Monday's downhill run after missing a gate. Sacha Gros and Casey Puckett each slipped out. For Fiala, his 16th in the combined is a great stepping stone for his first Worlds appearance.
"I had a good top section and I struggled on the second half on the more steep section. This week is the first week running slalom all year. I only trained slalom for three days," Fiala said as his parents and friends watched. "It's a good start for not running gates a lot. I'm happy with it."
The combined marks the end of the speed events. From here on out, it's all gates as the men and women technical teams roll into Vail for the final events through Sunday.
Swiss Kernen Takes Downhill Combined
For the first time all week, an Austrian name wasn't among the race leaders. But the thing is, the race isn't over yet.
A watered down men's field competed in the first leg of the combined competition with the downhill run at the Birds of Prey course, the last time the men will face its daunting slopes.
Double-gold medalist Hermann Maier skipped the event, opening the door for others to step up. The familiar Norwegians, Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, were there in their familiar positions near the top, but it was Switzerland's Bruno Kernen who ripped the shortened combined downhill course to bump the Austrians off the leader board.
"I had a nice run today, but it came two days too late," said Kernen, the 1997 World Champion downhiller and second in the 1997 worlds combined. "I've had a rough season. I always knew I could ski fast, but today was the first time I could show it."
Kernen, seventh in the men's downhill Saturday, ran a clean run on a day of many late-race spills to finish in 1:13.44. Aamodt was second at .08 seconds back and Kjus third at .14 seconds back. The winner will be decided Tuesday when the men complete two slalom runs on Vail Mountain.
For Aamodt, the 1997 Worlds combined champion still searching for his first gold at these Worlds, the chance is ripe. "Anything can happen on Tuesday. There are two runs, but I feel good after today's run. The times are very close, so you've got to ski good tomorrow," Aamodt said.
The Austrians, who've won 10 gold medals between the men's and women's teams so far, weren't too far behind. Werner Franz was fourth at .47 seconds back, Michael Walchhofer was 8th and slalom specialist Christian Mayer, making his Vail World Championships debut, was 11th at 1.54 seconds off the pace.
"I'm happy with my ski today because I'm not so good in the downhill," said Mayer, fourth at the 1997 Worlds combined. "I hope to ski well tomorrow. It will be hard to beat Kjus and Aamodt."
American Jakub Fiala posted the fastest time from the US Ski Team, crossing the tape 14th at 2.17 seconds back.
"It was better today than on Saturday. I had some problems at the bottom of the course. I'm glad we have another shot at it," said Fiala, who was 29th at 5.88 seconds back in the men's downhill. "The weather was so bad on Saturday, we didn't have much of a chance."
Bode Miller crashed hard on the lower section of the course and skied through the finish on one ski, but was later disqualified. A strong slalom skier, he and Sacha Gros were both competing in the combined to get in precious real-speed training runs in preparation for Sunday's men's slalom.
"I almost killed myself up there. I was attacking the course and it was pretty icy. I hit a bump and it was pretty scary. I was heading straight for the trees," said Gros after competing in his first-ever combined at 32nd, 6.03 seconds off the pace. "It's good to finish because I get the slalom tomorrow. That will be good practice for Sunday."
Bravely stepping into the start house was Casey Puckett, the American skier who suffered a horrible crash in Saturday's downhill. Puckett did a barrel roll off the final roller on Saturday, but there wasn't a question on whether he'd start today. At least not a question in his mind.
"My coach said if I'm not 100 percent, don't race. It was like 60/40 up there. I was stretching and feeling pretty sore still from the crash. My coach asked my how I was, I said let's do it," said Puckett, who finished 25th at 3.59 seconds back.
"I skied conservatively. I didn't want to take any chances. I'm kind of bummed because I thought I could medal in this event, but there's a lot of time to make up," Puckett said.
While the men raced at Beaver Creek, the US women's slalom and giant slalom team trained for the first day at Vail. The women will continue training in preparation for Thursday's giant slalom and Saturday's slalom.
Andrew Hood, Mountain Zone Correspondent
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