Vonn isn’t only retiring racer this week
Bode Miller was in the start gate for the slalom of a super-combined at Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey on Nov. 30, 2006. He had a 2.04-second lead, an eternity in the world of ski racing.
Miller skied off course early in the run, giving the win to some Norwegian guy named Aksel Lund Svindal.
“I was so happy I was on the podium,” Svindal said at the time. “I was celebrating already.”
While Lindsey Vonn has rightly been receiving the lion’s share of coverage as she retires with Sunday’s FIS Alpine World Ski Championship women’s downhill in Are, Sweden, Svindal is also calling it a career after Saturday’s men’s downhill.
The senior member of the Attacking Vikings, as the current edition of the Norwegians are known, Svindal has 31 World Cup wins, five world championship gold medals, two Olympic golds (spread between the 2010 super-G and the 2018 downhill) and two World Cup championships in 2007 and 2009.
A lot of his career is centered around Birds of Prey.
Aksel and Golden Eagle
That 2006 super-combined win was just the third victory of Svindal’s career. He was 23 at the time. It was the first of five wins for Svindal as he raced his way to the first of two World Cup overalls.
You might have noticed that his World Cup titles came in 2007 and 2009. That’s because his 2007-08 season came to an abrupt halt at Birds of Prey. During downhill training here on Nov. 27, 2007, Svindal went off the Golden Eagle jump and crashed into The Abyss. Birds of Prey is known for its yard sales, but this one was a whopper.
Svindal broke his nose and his cheek in three different places and had a “thigh laceration.” That’s a nice way of saying that the edge of one his skis gashed into his upper left leg. According to our former reporter Ian Cropp, who interviewed Svindal when he was in the hospital, doctors had to go into through his stomach to repair the damage to his leg and make sure everything was where it should be.
Most mortals would have never wanted to revisit such a nightmarish place. But Svindal came back the next year and won the downhill and super-G — his first World Cup victories since the crash — on consecutive days, followed by a third-place finish in the giant slalom.
When asked about the Hollywood nature of his comeback, Svindal said in his typical dry humor, “Well, if I wrote it myself, I probably would have won the last two races (in Lake Louise, Alberta, last week) as well.”
Svindal went on to win overall title No. 2 that season.
Who needs a tendon?
Svindal has six wins at Birds of Prey, which ties him for third with Ted Ligety. He’s behind only Hermann Maier (eight) and Marcel Hirscher (seven) — one’s an Austrian ski god and the other is another Austrian ski god in the making.
What is even more remarkable is that Svindal has been so good on a course that nearly ended his career. In 25 World Cup starts since the crash of 2007, he has 22 top-10 finishes at Beaver Creek. He didn’t make the flip in the 2011 slalom here; was 11th in the 2013 GS and 21st in the 2015 super-G.
Speaking of 2015, when the world championships returned here, he had a ruptured Achilles tendon. Svindal hadn’t raced in a World Cup race all season leading up to worlds
“I have nothing to lose, so we’ll see what happens,” he said after an uneventful training run.
Svindal promptly finished sixth in both the super-G and downhill. That’s just silly.
The end of eras
With Vonn’s retirement, there’s been a lot of talk about the end of one era for American skiing and the beginning of the next with Mikaela Shiffrin. Whatever one thinks about Vonn-Shiffrin — whether there is a rivalry; who’s better; who’s going to win the most by the end of their careers — it’s not as nebulous with Svindal.
From a small, but justifiably very proud ski nation, Svindal has taken the torch from Kjetil Andre-Aamodt (Norway’s most decorated racer with nine golds combined from the Olympics and worlds) and Lasse Kjus, who medaled in every event here during the 1999 worlds, among his other accomplishments.
He has led the charge of the Attacking Vikings for more than 10 years, as teammates Kjetil Jansrud, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde and Henrik Kristoffersen have developed and flowered in their respective careers.
At the end of the calendar 2018 year, Svindal wrote on Instagram, “Traveling around with the ‘Attacking Vikings’ is a special thing. Something I probably will never experience again, so trying to enjoy it for as long as I can. And here’s a big thank you to patient teammates still being awesome company for ‘the old guy.’”
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