Austria's downhillers are in speed slump
BORMIO, Italy—Austria's domination in the downhill stretches back nearly uninterrupted to the founding of the World Cup circuit in the late 1960s.
Now, though, skiing's "Wunderteam" is facing a crisis in the speed disciplines it ruled for so long.
With Michael Walchhofer's retirement at the end of last season, the Austrian men's team features only one racer who has ever won a World Cup downhill -- Klaus Kroell, with two. And with nearly a third of the season gone, it hasn't won a single downhill or super-G.
By contrast, former greats Karl Schranz (8), Franz Klammer (25), Hermann Maier (15), Stephan Eberharter (18) and Walchhofer (14) won a combined 80 downhills.
"(Fans and media) have to stop dreaming that we can win every downhill," said Austria coach Mathias Berthold. "You can't just ignore the fact that we have the youngest team of all."
While Kroell and speed team co-leader Hannes Reichelt are each 31, a big group of Austrians in the their early 20s have been getting regular World Cup starts this season. They include Max Franz, Joachim Puchner, Matthias Mayer, Johannes Kroell, Otmar Striedinger, Manuel Kramer and Bjoern Sieber.
In the three super-G races this season, no Austrian has finished on the podium, while in downhill the best results were a third-place finish by Reichelt and two from Kroell.
"I am absolutely not satisfied with our performance in super-G," Berthold told Austrian media. "The team clearly has more potential, every athlete knows that. We have sensational split times, but guys like Reichelt throw it away by making stupid mistakes."
Because skiing remains Austria's top sport, the pressure is mounting heading into the season's classic races in January in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbuehel, Austria.
"Obviously, they're in a bit of a rebuilding phase now," said Bode Miller, who leads the downhill standings after three races. "They had such a strong, older team before."
With rebuilding likely in mind, Walchhofer was called in to mentor the younger skiers on a trial basis for Thursday's downhill in Bormio, which he won a record three times.
"He has a lot of experience and everyone can learn from him," said Kroell, who finished third in Bormio.
The Swiss can claim most of the success this season. Miller won a downhill win in Beaver Creek, Colo., and Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal captured a super-G in Lake Louise, Alberta.
However, Olympic champion Didier Defago and Swiss teammate Patrick Kueng finished 1-2 in the Bormio downhill. Didier Cuche, Sandro Viletta and Beat Feuz have also won speed races for the Swiss flag this season.
"I would say maybe the Swiss is the new power," said downhill world champion Erik Guay of Canada. "They have a very strong team and a lot of depth."
Austria's problems are not new, they've just been exposed more since Walchhofer's retirement.
In 2009-10, the Austrian men failed to win a downhill race all season and didn't take home a single medal from the Vancouver Olympics.
Berthold, a World Cup slalom skier for Austria in the 1980s and 90s who coached the German women's team to two world titles in 2009 and three golds in Vancouver, replaced Toni Giger as Austria's coach shortly after the Olympic debacle.
"It's a good atmosphere in the team and I think that's one of the keys, you can speak with (Berthold)," Kroell said. "He was a racer and it's different to speak with a coach who was a racer."
Berthold, who was also once an assistant coach for the U.S. women, has brought a more personal and open approach to a team once known for its rigidness.
"It's important for the boys that they get the feeling that they are important and that they are of value for the team," Berthold told The Associated Press. "I raced myself so I know what an athlete is really looking for. It's been a great relationship with all the boys so far, and the coaches as well.
"I've changed pretty much 90 percent of the coaching staff over the two years now. Everything is new to them, but nothing is really new to me because it just goes the way I had it with the German girls."
While pushing for Kroell or Reichelt to get a win, Berthold is also optimistic that Mario Scheiber, who recently returned after nearly a year out because of injury, can become a contender again.
Scheiber had nine second-place finishes in the speed disciplines before breaking his shoulder blade and nose in a crash during downhill training nearly a year ago in Chamonix, France.
And things are looking up for Austria in the technical events, with Marcel Hirscher winning three races and second in the overall standings behind Svindal.
Also, Austria still holds a massive lead over Switzerland in the nations cup standings -- in both the men's ranks (2,087-1,429) and the combined overall standings for men and women (3,901-2,156).
"We lead it by miles," Berthold said. "But we have to now get the team winning races."
Associated Press writer Eric Willemsen contributed to this report from Lienz, Austria.