By David Fong
February 8, 2014
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Even if he’s never finished better than fifth in a World Cup downhill, Austria’s Matthias Mayer is catching everyone’s attention ahead of the opening Alpine race at the Sochi Olympics.
That’s what happens when a guy turns in a couple of top-three times in the first two training runs, including the fastest time on Friday.
Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway summed up what Mayer’s done: “Impressive skiing, two days in a row.”
Bode Miller of the U.S. had this to say about Mayer, whose father won an Olympic medal 26 years ago: “He’s got great touch.”
High praise from a pair of two-time overall World Cup champions and triple medalists at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Mayer was timed in 2 minutes, 6.51 seconds on Friday, 0.27 ahead of past overall World Cup winner Carlo Janka of Switzerland, and 0.55 ahead of Svindal. Miller, who led Thursday’s opening training run, was sixth Friday.
“I’m not under pressure,” said the 23-year-old Mayer, who might be excused for being nervous about his status as Austria’s best downhill hope now that Hannes Reichelt is sidelined after back surgery. “It’s totally the opposite. I feel free.”
The women’s training session was completed without a hitch, a day after the run was halted for an hour so a particularly dangerous jump could be trimmed down. Fabienne Suter of Switzerland finished in 1:42.70 Friday, followed by Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein and Anna Fenninger of Austria. Reigning overall World Cup champion Tina Maze of Slovenia was fifth, one spot ahead of Stacey Cook of the U.S., with three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso of the U.S. in 10th.
Ski-loving Austria has won more men’s downhills at the Olympics than any other nation, six of 17, but the last came in 2002 from Fritz Strobl, who happens to be from the same region in southern Austria as Mayer. So is Franz Klammer, who won the 1976 Innsbruck downhill.
All told, Austria has collected nearly twice as many Alpine Olympic medals across every event as any other country, 105, but its men left the 2010 Games with none.
They came oh-so-close, too, with four fourth-place finishes.
“I hope we are more lucky than in Vancouver,” Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said.
Pum knows that his quartet of downhillers for Sunday — Mayer, Max Franz, Klauss Kroell and Georg Streitberger — can boast of a combined zero career downhill victories.
But he also likes what he has seen lately from Mayer, who has had more success in the super-G, including a silver medal at the 2008 junior world championships and two second-place World Cup showings. Those super-G skills would seem to suit Mayer well for the Olympic course, which several racers found to be a bit on the technical side.
Pum also has ties to Mayer’s family that go way back. When Mayer’s father, Helmut, took home a silver in the super-G at the 1988 Calgary Olympics — a little more than two years before Matthias was born — Pum was an assistant coach with the Austrian team.
Father and son are rather similar, it turns out.
“Both are very good technical skiers,” Pum said. “They are really concentrated and very nice guys. They are the same.”
Mayer, though, said he’s not sure how much weight his father’s advice would carry these days, because skiing is so different now than it was a quarter-century ago.
Still, Mayer smiled as he noted, “I have Olympic blood in the family.”
Now he hopes to add to the family’s Olympic medal collection, too.