Saturday, February 18, 2006
Aamodt did it again: win in the clutch
By Carrie Sheinberg
Special to ESPN.com
SESTRIERE, Italy -- For 14 years, Kjetil Andre Aamodt has made himself the odds-on medal favorite in a sport where the difference between making the spread or beating it can be the width of a snowflake.
This has gone on too long for Aamodt's success to be considered coincidence.
In 1992, at age 20, Aamodt became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the super-G. On Saturday, at 34, he became the oldest. The Norwegian has now won a record eight Olympic medals. The previous record of seven was held by ... the man himself.
And the list goes on.
When legendary Austrian skier Toni Sailer handed Aamodt the traditional winner's bouquet to commemorate Aamodt's victory in Saturday's super-G, he was also handing over the title of most gold medals won by a single ski racer (Aamodt now has four). Combine these performances with Aamodt's 12 World Championship medals, and you have ski racing's ultimate clutch athlete.
"Aamodt is a special guy," U.S. Ski Team coach Phil McNichol said. "I don't know how he does what he does. To come out today and hold the focus through all of these course holds and throw down a gold-medal performance, that's why he's in a category all by himself."
For perspective, there are top-seeded racers on the World Cup circuit who wait more than a decade for their first win. The reasons are both numerable and legitimate. Hundredths of one second can be explained away by gusts of wind, bad wax, luck, or any number of variables that are out of a racer's control. Yet somehow, at the world's biggest events, Aamodt has always seemed to be the one who has shed those extra hundredths, proving that he is just that much better.
It is not easy to explain, but it cannot be explained away.
"He has a tiger or something inside that he brings out when it's the Olympics or World Championships," said his young teammate, Aksel Svindal, who finished fifth, only .45 of a second behind Aamodt.
"I don't know what to say. Amazing is not a good word maybe, he's just brutal," said Liechtenstein's Marco Buechel, who finished sixth overall. "He is unbelievable. He can always peak at the Olympics."
One of Aamodt's explanations for his success comes in his typical deadpan style of humor that has long endeared him to his competitors: "I'm not tall, but I'm fat."
Still, to anyone who studies World Cup ski racing, the differences are hard to discern.
It's not the way he pushes out of the starting gate, it's not the way he lays his hip into the hill, or the way he pressures his ski. It's not the way he glides powerfully over the rough spots in soft snow that dotted Saturday's super-G course. He's not visibly different. He's just faster every time he needs to be.
Saturday's super-G was a perfect example of Aamodt's ability to keep cool in the face of ski racing's inevitable distractions. Before he even came to the slopes for the race, Aamodt was nursing a bad knee that forced him to miss an earlier race and train on kiddie slopes. Then on Saturday, heavy snowfall had caused the cancellation of the event. Racers had gone through their pre-race routine, inspected the course, ate their favorite breakfast, warmed up and readied themselves for the treacherous 75-mph descent. Then, after racer No. 17, Bruno Kernen of Switzerland, skidded off course in thick fog and heavy snow, the race was stopped. Referee Guenter Hujara determined they would start all over again three hours later. Understandably, it was a situation that sent many racers spinning.
But not Aamodt. After 24 racers had gone, he once again laid down a run that was just that much faster than everybody else's.
How does he do it? Even he doesn't know.
"I can't believe that I'm here right now," Aamodt said. "To defend an Olympic title in alpine skiing is a rare thing. It's a great feeling."
That feeling seems to be precisely what keeps him going, year after year, race after race, hundredth after hundredth, even through injury and setback.
"If you love to do something, it's easy to spend a lot of time on the hill," Aamodt said. "If you work hard over a long period of time with a lot of focus, good things will happen to you in the end. That's what happened to me today."
Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.