U.S. team finds gold in Austrian hills

Posted: Thursday, February 01, 2001

ST. ANTON, Austria -- Suddenly, the Americans are soaring in the Alps.

Skiing's showcase event of the year was all of 2 days old before the United States, usually no match for the likes of Austria, was in surprising command.

Megan Gerety finished fourth in the opening women's super-G, with the Austrians failing to place among the top seven.

The next day Daron Rahlves delivered a gold medal in the men's super-G -- only the third American man to win gold in world championship history.

''It's the best possible start to the championships and a great example that you don't have to come in as favorite to win,'' said Bode Miller, who will compete in the men's downhill Saturday. ''It shows we can put it down and we are up there with every one. We can compete against anyone. Even the Austrians.''

Austria not only had the world's best skiers, but the advantage of skiing on mountains at home. And when Rahlves came soaring down the slope Tuesday, the clanging cowbells of the Austrian fans turned eerily silent.

Rahlves swooped in to take the super-G from Austria's Stefan Eberharter and dropped another Austrian, the great Hermann Maier, to a mortifying third.

And now even Maier might be in trouble with his army of fans. After Rahlves overtook Eberharter, Maier broke into a grin when the American crossed the finish line. Some suggested he was taking pleasure in a teammate's misfortune.

''The Herminator lost more than just a world championship race and a title, in the moment of his defeat he also lost a lot of sympathy,'' the Vienna newspaper Die Presse said Wednesday.

Maier dismissed the criticism.

''I laughed because the Americans practice with us and then it's one of them who beat us,'' Maier said. ''That's simply laughable. Whoever gives it a negative interpretation should see a psychiatrist.''

The Austrians set daunting demands for themselves. After all, this is a country that swept the top nine places in a super-G at home in Innsbruck in 1999. The Americans, however, don't want to get lost in hero worship.

''We come here and we tell them we don't give a damn,'' Miller said. ''It doesn't matter that they once placed nine skiers in the top 10.''

Added U.S. skier Caroline Lalive: ''It's not your goal to shut out the Austrians, but to get yourself on the podium. But it is better if they're behind you. Of course, it's better if everyone is behind you.''

The Americans and Austrians train together regularly, and that has helped dispel some of the awe the Austrian team usually inspires.

''We've learned from the Austrians,'' Rahlves said. ''We learned that they're not unbeatable. It's good for us to know they aren't machines. Pretty close, but not quite.''

But there are other elements facing the Americans, and other teams as well -- the masses of Austrian fans lining the course and flocking to the resort. During the super-G, some 20,000 Austrians made the trip.

Things are going so well for the Americans, though, that even the hometown rooters are good.

''I feel I compete better when there are a lot of people out,'' Rahlves said. ''I get totally stoked to do it. It's more exciting. I feel more motivated. I feel the energy and have a good time.

''It's more fun skiing and putting yourself on the line when people are out there.''

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