It may 160 miles above the artic circle but the way that Maria Hoefl-Riesch brushed aside the lead of Tanja Poutiainen was nothing short of red hot. Finland’s Poutiainen had lead after the first run yet Hoefl-Riesch, back to full strength after suffering from flu at the opening race of the World Cup in Soelden two weeks prior to Levi, destroyed the rest of the field on the second run to win the opening Slalom of the season.  Poutiainen held on for second place with American sensation Mikaela Shiffrin taking a fantastic third place overall, matching her best world cup result from Lienz last season.

Levi is one of the most popular destinations in Finland. For Poutiainen, this is her one chance of racing at home on the World Cup. This is where she sets her stall for the season and the Fin made no mistake on the first run to take the lead. With Marlies Schild crashing out on the first run from start number 1, Poutiainen and Hoefl-Riesch knew they had a duel between themselves. Poutiainen lead by three tenths following the first run. With the lights on and temperature dipping, it was all to play for on the second run.

The joy of the second run in the technical races is that the atmosphere rises with each racer. The fastest racer goes last and despite there being no lindsey Vonn or Julia Mancuso on the start list, both preferring to stay in America to train in preparation for the races in Aspen in two weeks, there was still enough talent on show to make this a compelling race. When Veronika Velez Zuzulova took the lead from Canadian Marie-Michelle Gagnon, you could sense that this was a race about to boil up. The Slovakian held on to the lead until the lady of the moment, Tina Maze came down.

Velez Zuzulova had been in twelfth spot after the first run and her second run was fast and furious.  With Maze a second off the leading time, it would take a lot of mistakes from the leaders to give her a second consecutive win. Yet still with three runners to go she was leading. Mikaela Shiffrin may only be 17 years old, may not have a driving licence yet, yet she can drive her skis fast and while Levi may not be the steepest slope on the World Cup tour for the girls, it is the same for all the racers. Shiffrin looked calm and confident and took her place in the leaders box. She deserved it. The question now was whether her more experienced rivals still at the top could match her time or better it?

Maria Hoefl-Riesch was first out the start gate and her second run was gutsy, strong and showed just why she is the talent that she is.  Soelden may not have been the result that she was after but at full strength, the German was on fire. a slight loss of time at the top was more than countered by a stunning section down the pitch in the middle of the slope. Across the flats at the bottom and Hoefl-Riesch had extended her lead in front of the young American to almost three quarter’s of a second. Now the pressure was on Poutiainen.

With the lights on and the crowds watching, Poutiainen, who last won in Levi in 2004, was off. The top was good and then a small mistake coming into the pitch saw her swing out and lose time. Would the three tenths be enough to hold on or had she blown her opportunity. Poutiainen was the oldest racer in the race and with this in mind, she knew that she had to go for it.

When she crossed the line at the finish, there was a wry smile as she knew that she will not have many more opportunities to win in her home race. Second place is not to be sniffed at but when Marlies Schild and Michaela Kirchgasser have both skied out on a rare off day for the Austrians, the opportunity to win is there. Alex Daum was the best of the Austrians in ninth place. “I was disappointed for maybe half a second after crossing the finish line. But that must be normal when you are leading in the first run. Maria and I talked about the situation before the second run – the first year the Levi race took place there were two slaloms and she won one and I won the other. So, we commented how it would be great if both of us could be on the podium together after so many years,” Poutiainen commented.

“It’s always good to start the season with a victory,” Hoefl-Riesch said. “The first race in Soelden was not easy; I was recovering from a bad flue so this is a much better start. I am almost 28 now and even though I might be counted among the older crew, especially if compared to Mikaela, I sure feel I have a lot more to give and am looking forward to the next races.”

For Schild the wait goes on for her to become the greatest slalom racer of all time, and also to match her boyfriends number of wins! She is still stuck on 33 wins. Her next opportunity will be in Aspen in two weeks time. With Tina Maze taking fourth, she adds more points to her lead over Lindsey Vonn in the race for the overall. Vonn will be back in action in Aspen.

For the full results click here

 

NMcQ