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Skiers experience ups and downs

Cuche enjoyed a successful World Cup season Reuters

Despite a poor world championships, Switzerland’s male skiers had a satisfactory season, according to their coach. The situation is grimmer for the women, however.

Didier Cuche was once again the motor of the Swiss ski team, on Thursday winning the downhill World Cup title for the fourth time and later the same day – thanks to bad weather which meant the final race was cancelled – the Super-G World Cup title.

These trophies were complemented by a silver in the downhill at the World Ski Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February.

“It was an incredible season,” said the 36-year-old speed specialist. “After a so-so start, I didn’t think I’d be able to pick up two trophies at Lenzerheide.”

His six World Cup titles, achieved in three disciplines since 2007 – four downhill, one giant slalom, one Super-G – are giving him ideas about what will almost certainly be his last season.

“Being a contender in three disciplines, I might have a chance of winning the overall title next winter,” he said.

Unlike last year, when compatriot Carlo Janka showed what he could do and skied off with the overall title – made up of points from all five disciplines – this season Cuche had to watch Croatian all-rounder Ivica Kostelic win the overall cup, and by a considerable margin.

Nevertheless, Cuche moved up from third to second place, with Janka third.

Janka may have slipped, but third place was not bad for someone who had an operation on his heart during the season.

“Right direction”

Martin Rufener, who is bowing out after seven years as chief trainer of the Swiss men’s national alpine ski team, said he was satisfied looking back on his last season.

“It’s always hard to win the overall title. I therefore wouldn’t say that we’ve taken a step back on last season. This season we had Cuche obviously, but there were other winners: Silvan Zurbriggen, Beat Feuz, Carlo Janka,” said Rufener.

“We’re going in the right direction because despite numerous injuries, there are still Swiss skiers capable of competing with the best.”

Janka’s season, for example, was disrupted in February when tests showed sudden changes in his heartbeat, possibly caused by a mysterious viral infection in the past two summers.

He appeared exhausted in Garmish-Partenkirchen and withdrew from some of the races in order to recover. Although he had been a hot medal favourite, he came away empty-handed.

It was originally planned to wait until the end of the season before having a corrective operation, but worsening symptoms prompted doctors to operate earlier. He went into hospital – and ten days later won the men’s giant slalom in the Slovenian resort of Kranjska Gora.

“My body has had highs and lows,” Janka admitted. “But since my operation I’ve felt much better. Sure, I’m not back to top form, but it’s reassuring for the future.”

Rufener said that besides the seven victories and 17 podiums this winter, he’s happy to see progress made by skiers such as Justin Murisier, Reto Schmidiger and Dominique Gisin.

Half full or half empty?

The blot was the world championships, where only Cuche’s silver medal prevented the Swiss team from returning home empty handed. This was a long way from the six-medal success of Val d’Isère two years ago.

The poor results were put down largely to bad luck and injuries (Daniel Albrecht and Olympic downhill champion Didier Défago are out hurt), and the Swiss ski federation isn’t jumping to any conclusions.

Nevertheless, the situation for Switzerland’s female skiers is far from rosy: not one of the women made it onto the podium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – in five disciplines.

But Mauro Pini, the new coach of the women’s team, refuses to make a mountain out of a mogul.

“Sure, we’re judged on results and I’m not shirking this responsibility. But I prefer to focus on the positive: the return of Lara Gut [two fourth places after spending a season out with an injured hip] has been a success,” he said.

“The nurturing of talent has also succeeded, as we saw at the junior world championships in Crans-Montana. Speed specialists like [Marianne] Abderhalden, [Nadja] Kamer and Gisin have really improved technically. In the slalom and giant slalom three girls regularly qualified for the second run – which was not the case the previous season.”

Mental improvement

However, Pini certainly doesn’t rule out any changes. “It’s important that every member of the squad has the fire needed to take part in our project,” he said.

At the end of the season he’ll carry out a detailed analysis of 2010/11 and come up with improvements, with the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in mind.

“The girls have to get better – technically and physically, but also mentally. Unlike the men, some of them don’t apply the same professional rigour which should steer an elite athlete’s career.”

That’s not however the case for 19-year-old Lara Gut, who won two silver medals at the world championships in Val d’Isère in 2009.

“My comeback has been successful, but I hope it will be the last one! If you’d offered me those results at the beginning of the season, I would have taken them immediately. I’m now happy to be able to start training once again for the giant and slalom, two disciplines I’ve slightly neglected,” she said.

As usual, Gut will train independently of the Swiss team. The fear is that the tension between her camp and Swiss Ski – which peaked in December after she criticised Pini, resulting in her being banned for two races – hasn’t been totally forgotten.

Didier Cuche was born in 1974 at Le Pâquier in canton Neuchâtel. He mainly competes in the downhill and Super-G disciplines, along with the technical discipline of giant slalom.

He is the reigning World Cup downhill and Super-G champion for the 2011 season and has won three previous downhill titles in 2010, 2008 and 2007, as well as a giant slalom title in 2009.

Cuche has 17 World Cup race victories, along with 60 podiums (top three) and 170 top ten finishes. He is also an Olympic silver medalist and has won a total of four World Championships medals (a gold, two silvers, and a bronze).

In January, Cuche became the oldest race winner in the history of the World Cup, winning the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel at the age of 36. It was also his fourth downhill victory on what is generally considered the most difficult and dangerous of all downhill courses. He extended his age record a week later, with another downhill win in Chamonix.

(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)

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