KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Matthias Mayer grew up in Austria admiring plenty of Alpine skiers, from his medal-winning dad, to all-time great Hermann Maier, to a couple of guys he races against these days, Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal.
Unexpectedly, Mayer now can call himself something none of those others can: Olympic downhill champion.
Four years after ski-loving Austria departed the Winter Games with zero men’s Alpine medals for the first time, Mayer made his nation 1 for 1 in 2014, upstaging prerace favorites Miller and Svindal by charging down the course in 2 minutes, 6.23 seconds Sunday to win gold in the sport’s premier event.
And to think: In 65 previous World Cup or world championship races, the 23-year-old Mayer never had finished first. He’d never fared better than fifth in a downhill.
“He’s not an experienced guy,” Austrian men’s coach Mathias Berthold said, “so you never know what he’s going to do.”
But from the moment Mayer saw the Rosa Khutor slope in Thursday’s opening training run, he sensed his Olympic debut would go spectacularly well.
“I was very self-confident this week,” said Mayer, whose father, Helmut, won the super-G silver at the 1988 Calgary Games. “The turns are just right for me. And the hill is just right for me.”
But just barely. He edged silver medalist Christof Innerhofer of Italy by only 0.06 seconds, and bronze medalist Kjetil Jansrud of Norway by 0.10.
What about Svindal, the World Cup downhill standings leader? Or Miller, fastest in two of the three training sessions? Both won three medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games, both won two overall World Cup titles, both looked terrific in the lead up to Sunday – and neither was even the fastest man from his own country when it counted.
Norway’s Svindal was fourth, 0.19 slower than Jansrud. Miller came in eighth, three spots behind U.S. teammate Travis Ganong.
“I’m disappointed to not have a better result next to my name. It’s one of those days where it’s hard to say where the time went, because I skied pretty well. I was really aggressive, took a lot of risk,” said the 36-year-old Miller, whose five career Olympic Alpine medals are a U.S. record. “I made a couple of small mistakes, but not really mistakes that cost you a lot of time.”
He was more than a half-second slower than Mayer, who started 11th of 50 racers and smiled broadly when he saw No. 15 Miller’s result. Someone from the Austrian team reached over and mussed Mayer’s spiky hair.
In the finish area, Miller bowed his head, then leaned over and rested his helmet on his gloves. He sat in the snow for a few moments, the very picture of resignation.
“It’s tough when you have to judge yourself, because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly,” Miller said. “Just like I’ve said a million times, I’m not always so attached to the result.”
He put some blame for his performance on lower visibility Sunday, when the sky was filled with thick clouds, unlike the perfectly clear training days that Miller dominated.
Mayer, Miller said, “doesn’t really change if the visibility goes bad, and that was a huge advantage today. I had to change a lot from the training runs to today, just not being able to see the snow up there.”
U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick, though, hit on another point.
“It was a combination of things,” Rearick said. “A little bit the weather – and wanting it too much.”
If Mayer is unfamiliar to most outside the skiing world, he was certainly a known quantity to folks such as Miller and Svindal. Known better for his skill at super-G, in which he has two second-place World Cup finishes, Mayer was third in training Thursday, and fastest Friday, before easing up to save some energy Saturday.
When Svindal was asked during the week to point to opponents that worried him, he mentioned Mayer. So after Mayer’s victory, Svindal was asked why.
“Because I looked at the times in training, and he was super consistent,” said Svindal, who started 18th, when the snow was softer than during Mayer’s run. “Bode was fast. I was fast. But he was the most consistent of us all.”
Mayer did nothing all that spectacular or different from other racers Sunday, but he was good enough throughout. Of the course’s four sections, he was fastest only on the second part; he was only ninth fastest down the final stretch.
Still, Mayer did enough to join the list of previously unheralded Olympic downhill champions, alongside names such as Tommy Moe of the United States in 1994, Leonhard Stock of Austria in 1980, and Jean-Luc Cretier of France in 1998. It was at those Nagano Olympics that Mayer, 7 at the time, set an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night in Austria to watch with his grandfather on TV as Maier raced in Japan.
Maier took a terrifying tumble during the downhill, but returned to competition a few days later to win the super-G.
“That was impressive to me,” Mayer said. “That made me want to be a downhiller more.”
There he was Sunday, getting congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back from racer after racer who was not as fast as Mayer on this day.
“I have a lot of idols. Maier, (four-time Olympic medalist) Stefan Eberharter,” Mayer said. “Aksel Lund Svindal and Bode Miller, they’re idols for me, too.”
Somewhere back home in Austria, some kid watched Mayer win and now will idolize him.