You can learn something about a man's work from the manner in
which he spends his vacation. The beach. The woods. The couch. In
the heart of the central Austrian summer, when Fritz Strobl finds
himself briefly turned loose from his job as a downhill racer on
the Austrian ski team, he's a policeman in the town of Hallein
(pop. 18,500), near Salzburg. "I find it relaxing," says Strobl.
"I am cut off from the pressure of ski racing." The beach. The
woods. The couch. The patrol car. Any vocation that sends a man
into law enforcement for relaxation isn't for the weak.
On Sunday, Strobl, 29, brought resolution to the mighty Austrian
downhill team's quadrennial Olympic melodrama by winning a gold
medal on Snowbasin's wicked Grizzly course. His performance
elevated his solid career, touched off a rollicking celebration
among Austrian fans who had traveled 7,000 miles to the northern
Wasatch Range and, most of all, wrote a merciful ending to a
proud team's tumultuous season, which began with a horrific
summertime motorcycle crash and ended with the country's first
Olympic downhill victory since 1992. If Strobl was not the
likeliest or most famous Austrian downhill gold medalist (in
truth, he was barely the likeliest Strobl), he was the most
pragmatic. "Races aren't won by reputation," he had said during
Hahnenkamm weekend at Kitzbuhel in late January. "They are won by
the fastest racer."
For the previous four years the fastest racer in Austria, the
world and, some would say, in history, had been Hermann Maier,
the hell-bent Herminator, who crashed the World Cup party late in
1997, won 41 races in five seasons and raised the ante on
fearlessness. He won two gold medals at the Nagano Olympics
(giant slalom and Super G) but is better remembered for his
spectacular, flying crash in the downhill. At Salt Lake City,
Maier, 29, was expected to command the skiing stage like no racer
since Jean-Claude Killy nearly a quarter-century ago.
At the end of August, however, he suffered a compound fracture of
his right leg--nearly requiring amputation--when a car struck his
motorcycle. At Kitzbuhel, where his presence at the races was
palpable, from T-shirts bearing pictures of his Nagano crash to
banners imploring him to return, Maier announced he was
abandoning his plans to compete in these Olympics.
Yet with Austrian ski racers, as with Kenyan steeplechasers,
another one is always waiting. In this case, Stephan Eberharter,
32, jumped in and won nine World Cup races this season, including
five of eight downhills. In public, Eberharter was gracious about
his success. Privately, he seethed at having been a forgotten man
during Maier's rise, despite having won six World Cup races and
finishing second 13 times in the 1998 through 2001 seasons. In
Maier's absence, he found a zone. "I'm not even trying," he said
in January. "Everything is flowing so smoothly, everything is
working so well."
Around him, the Austrians took more body blows. Hannes Trinkl,
34, the 2001 downhill world champion, suffered a fractured skull
and a severe concussion in a November crash. Josef (Pepi) Strobl
(no relation to but nearly as good as Fritz) blew out his knee in
training. "We have good racers who are watching on television,"
Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said in Salt Lake City.
Against this backdrop the Austrian coaches named Eberharter and
Fritz Strobl to their Olympic downhill team and declared that
because each country is allowed only as many as four starters in
Olympic races, the other two entrants would be decided by times
in the final training run, the day before the downhill. It was
the same bloody tactic that the Austrians had used in Nagano.
This time, a recovered Trinkl was among five skiers bounced,
along with Andreas Schifferer, 27, a seven-time World Cup
downhill winner. "It's beautiful that each country gets four
skiers," said Schifferer after the final training run, "but it's
hard for the individual from a country like Austria, which has
many good skiers [eight of the top 12 in the World Cup downhill
Christian Greber and Christoph Gruber survived the ski-off, but
Greber would finish sixth and Gruber 20th. "Tired in the legs
today," said Greber after the final. "A little bit tired in the
On Sunday, a day from central casting in the Utah mountains--light
winds, temperatures in the 20s and a breathtaking dome of blue
sky--Eberharter took the lead as the ninth skier down the
mountain, even though his run wasn't perfect. The Grizzly is a
short run (less than 1:40 compared with 1:55 at Kitzbuhel) and
gnarly, with a succession of sidehills and turns that demands a
smooth ride on the skis and extracts a huge price for errors.
Strobl, who chose number 10 in the draw so that he could follow
Eberharter (the top 15 skiers in the World Cup standings select
positions in order of their rank; Eberharter is No. 1, Strobl No.
2), raced clean from top to bottom and bumped Eberharter by .28
of a second. Three skiers later, Norwegian workhorse Lasse Kjus,
31, took over the silver spot, the same medal he had won in
No skier paid a higher price for mistakes than U.S. hope Daron
Rahlves, the 2001 world champion in Super G and winner of two
World Cup downhills. It had been a turbulent week for Rahlves; a
solid third-place in the first training run last Thursday brought
with it heavy hype, and that unhinged him slightly. "I didn't
expect to get hounded quite like that," he said. While tinkering
with equipment on the last training run, he skied terribly.
Trying to cleanse that experience from his body and reconnect
with the snow, Rahlves spent Saturday afternoon skiing day-old
powder in Snowbasin's lush back bowls.
On Sunday, Rahlves attacked Grizzly at a perilous speed. He took
a high, tight line off the dangerous Flintlock Jump and sailed
more than 150 feet, wheeling his arms to regain control. The big
air made for terrific visuals but cost Rahlves his line on the
ensuing turns in Bear Trap, and he never found his rhythm. When
his interval times were posted on the scoreboard in the finish
area, a hungry U.S. crowd groaned. "Big disappointment," said
Rahlves after finishing 16th. "I feel as if I'm in a fog." Like
Eberharter, he returns this Saturday in the Super G, a blessed
Strobl needs none. A member of the Austrian team for 12 years, he
has won six World Cup downhills and two Super Gs, but in two
world championships and one Olympics (1998), he had never
finished higher than fourth. "I've trained with Fritz for many
years, and I know what he can do, but he has never won the top
races," said Greber after Sunday's race. "For him to do this now,
it makes him the best Olympic champion I can name."
In a noisy, flamboyant sport, Strobl is a quiet soul who had
brought his wife, Bettina, and four-year-old son, Mario, to
Germany for a late-season Super G, won the race and thanked his
son for the luck. Now Strobl will be praised as an Olympic gold
medalist, a much brighter light. Outside the Snowbasin stadium,
names were dropped. Klammer. Killy. Zurbriggen. Strobl waved them
away. "Not now," he said. "I need a day, a night, to think."
He had longer than that. Gold medal buzz never dies.
January. "They are won by the fastest racer."