Rolland steps up to the plate with victory in Schladming

To some it may be a surprise to see Marion Rolland take the Gold in the Downhill but to those looking back at results from Schladming, Marion Rolland took second place behind Lindsey Vonn in the World Cup Finals last season – she had form on the slope and with her coaches having given her and her team mates a dressing down after a Super G under performance, this was a result where she stepped up to the plate when it counted. With Italian Nadia Fanchini almost carrying off a shock win from the early start number of 2, only to be deprived by the last of the top seeds, this was a race that was full of drama, intrigue, crashes and courage. Maria Hoefl-Riesch took her second medal of the Championships with bronze by just four hundredths over Nadia Kamer with Julia Mancuso in fifth.

From the off, this looked like a course for those who had courage and determination. The slope was technically demanding and worthy of a World Championship. Add to that the snow conditions, unusually hard and you had superb ingredients for a great race.

Fanchini took advantage of an early start number to post a great time. Her time bettered the only time on the board when she got to the finish by over three seconds. Vanja Brodnik had not made a major mistake but she was simply outclassed by the Italian. Fanchini has had her share of knee injuries and had spent much of the three previous seasons recuperating and coming back from various injuries first sustained in St Moritz in 2010. after her run, she described her run: “it was a great piste, a great run. I was relaxed in the curves. In the middle section I found a good line. In the beginning I was not that fast, I knew from the training runs I was not good in the flats. The longer the race was the better I got.” By the time she got to the finish all she could was wait. And wait. With each racer, many had the better of her on the top splits but by the time the racers came into the middle section, where the light had deteriorated, she was able to sit back and watch as she held the lead.

By the time the top seeds started (bibs 16 – 22), Fanchini, who’s sister, Elena, had also taken silver in the 2005 World Championships in Bormio, was feeling good. Later she would say: “This is a big dream come true, absolutely happy. I was not one of favourites and did all I could, I could not have done better, maybe some sections could have been better.”

Maria Hoefl-Riesch was the first of the top seeds to hit the course and with the conditions changing from one section to the next, Hoefl-Riesch was happy with her performance. “Downhill is dangerous, I like it when it is tough and challenging much more than when it is soft snow, this was fun but as Lindsey said after Cortina, ‘you have to have to have big balls’ to ski when it is like this. Downhill is spectacular, really special and great for world championships.”

Regarding the conditions, Hoefl-Riesch added that the light changing a little meant some had bad luck with flat light. For her it was sunny at top, dark in middle but lucky overall.

Coming into the race there was a sense that after Julia Mancuso and her boyfriend, Aksel Lund Svindal had both started 22 in the Super G and both taken bronze, the fact that Svindal had also started 17 in the Downhill and had gone on to win the Gold, could Mancuso achieve the same? Would fate transpire for this to happen? Sadly for Mancuso while she was happy with the result she took, she felt that she had lost time in the S bends and then also in the traverse. 5th place would have to suffice for the popular American, just ahead of her teammate Stacey Cook, another of the pre race big names. Cook tweeted afterwards: “it was a little dark and bumpy. I’m not sure how it got away. Frustrating.”

Number 20 was Tina Maze. Maze already had a Gold and Silver in the bag and had admitted that she thought two medals would be good before the championships. You can never write off the Slovenian and with victories in her career in all five disciplines and joint fastest time in the Super Combined Downhill, the possibility of five medals in the Championships was there. Maze did not fare well through the darkened part of the course and came down into sixth place. With Tina Weireither off form, it was down to Marion Rolland at the start to see if she could better the time of Fanchini.

From the top, Rolland was looking good and by the time she was through the third split, above the S bends, the green light was showing. Rolland, who is infamous for crashing at the start of the Vancouver Olympic Downhill two years ago, is another that has suffered knee injuries in her career. With the words of her coaches ringing in her ears after a disappointing French team performance in the Super G and boosted by the performances of Gauthier de Tessieres and David Poisson in the Men’s speed events, she admitted afterwards that there was still a colour missing from the collection! Afterwards she said: “After this meeting I thought about it and the downhill is a different day so started from 0 again and thought I have to give it my all and go for gold. I put my foot down and went for it.”

And went for it she did. When she crossed the line it was Gold. It was the first French win in the Women’s Downhill ever.* The joy on the Les Deux Alpes racer was immense and while she has struggled in the past with confidence did she believe she could do it before the race? “Yes I did believe I could do it. This is one of the things that I have to work on as I am not very self confident. I knew when I woke up this morning if I wanted a medal I would have to push myself and go for it. If the sensation under my skis was not good, I knew I would have to keep it and be strong and go to the finish line and do my best.”

“To win gold is obviously incredible, I dreamt about it like every young athlete. You have to believe in your dreams and your goals and fight hard to reach them,” added Rolland.

So as Maria Hoefl-Riesch described the podium as “The Ligament Podium” with all the podium having suffered from knee injuries, this was a great race with worthy winners. No Vonn in the field but the records will show Marion Rolland as the winner, a worthy winner on a course that was brutal in terms of its snow conditions.

Full results

* The 1966 Women’s World Championship Downhill was won by Erika Schinegger from Austria with France’s Marielle Goitschel second. Schinegger was never disqualified but in 1968 was forced to undergo a gender test and found out to be a man. After this Erika became Erik and lived as a man. In 1988 she presented her medal to the frenchwoman on Austrian TV. According to FIS, Goitschel gave the medal straight back. Schinegger was not disqualified.