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Sunday, February 10, 2002
Strobl pulls off upset; favorite Eberharter third

Associated Press

SNOWBASIN, Utah -- That an Austrian won the men's downhill was no surprise. That this Austrian won was the shocker.

Stephan Eberharter
Stephan Eberharter was supposed to win gold in the absence of Austrian favorite Hermann Maier.

Fritz Strobl, a part-time cop with no catchy nickname like the Herminator, raced down the dizzyingly steep 1.9-mile Grizzly course Sunday in less time than it takes to boil water.

His daredevil ride over, Strobl stared at the scoreboard and raised his arms in triumph when he saw his time and realized he had beaten heavily favored teammate Stephan Eberharter, who finished third.

"It's sensational. I didn't expect it," said Strobl, who grabbed a cell phone to call his wife and two young sons in Austria with the news. "I was just thinking of racing down the course, not of winning."

The lanky Strobl finished in 1 minute, 39.13 seconds to become the sixth Austrian to win the downhill in the 15 races since Alpine skiing made its Olympic debut in 1948.

The race was a bust for Daron Rahlves, America's best medal hope who boasted Saturday that he'd knock off the favored Austrians. He finished 16th, trailing less-heralded teammate Marco Sullivan by seven spots.

"It's a tough one to swallow. I'm still kind of in a daze right now," said Rahlves, the reigning world champion in super giant slalom. "It was just a very poor performance. The good thing is I've still got the Super G coming up on Saturday."

Lasse Kjus of Norway finished second for his fourth Olympic medal, matching his downhill silver medal from 1998. He was a fifth of a second behind Strobl. Eberharter was six-hundredths of a second behind Kjus.

"I have not failed. Many racers don't have a medal. It was not the best run, but it was not the worst. It was a bronze run," Eberharter said.

Strobl, known as "Friz the Cat," never seemed to struggle on a bear of a course that featured dazzling drops and extremely tight turns. Even Eberharter said it reminded him of a roller coaster: "You have a lot of up and downs, left and rights."

From the top of the course, exactly 9,289 feet above sea level on Mount Ogden, skiers gazed at the skyline of Salt Lake City about 35 miles away -- and anti-terrorism snipers surveyed the action.

Injected with water to make it icier and faster, Grizzly begins with a 74-degree jump -- akin to falling off the side of a cliff -- and includes a spot where racers fly almost 150 feet in the air.

Amazingly, not a single skier failed to finish the course despite speeds of more than 80 mph. Frenchman Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin crossed the finish line with one ski -- after losing the other one on the way down.

Racers were cheered at the bottom of the course by flag-waving, cowbell-ringing fans, many of whom arrived after the start of the race because of massive traffic backups leading to the ski area.

Some fans who paid up to $95 per ticket did not arrive until an hour after the start of the race, long after the top skiers had finished and the medals were decided.

Eberharter made a few mistakes in the middle of the course, spraying snow in the air as his skis bobbled a bit on the icy slope. By contrast, Strobl hardly seemed to leave a trace as his skis bit into the snow.

Even without the injured Herman Maier, the popular Herminator, Austria dominated the event, as usual -- with three skiers among the top six finishers.

Eberharter, skiing ninth, got a fast start, but had trouble controlling his skis halfway down the course. His time was the best up to that point, but his lead did not last long.

Strobl was up next, and when his time was posted, Eberharter was stone-faced. Three skiers later, Kjus sped past Eberharter into second place.

"It was not really my race. I made two or three small mistakes, in particular coming into the final wall," said Eberharter, who remains the favorite for the Super G and is a medal contender in the giant slalom.

The laid-back Strobl, who hopes to run his parents' farm when he retires, said he does not expect the Olympic title to change his life.

"This is just sensational. But life was beautiful before this and it will continue to be beautiful," he said. "Things won't change much."