Swiss skiers are applying the final layers of wax ahead of the new World Cup season – and after a golden Winter Olympics, expectations are high.
The circus gets underway this weekend with a giant slalom at the Austrian resort of Sölden, and stars Carlo Janka, Didier Cuche and Lara Gut will be looking to start the season as they mean to go on.
The days when the Swiss ski team were stuck in a losing rut seem a distant memory.
“Five years ago we were desperately chasing success,” Dierk Beisel, head of competitive sport at Swiss Ski, told swissinfo.ch at a pre-season press conference in Bern.
“What Martin Rufener [head of the men’s team] and his athletes have achieved is simply exceptional.”
Indeed, the Swiss men’s team finished the 2009/10 season in second place, just behind Austria. At the Vancouver Olympics in February the Swiss collected nine medals, including a record six gold and three bronze.
The bosses of Swiss Ski would love to steal first place from their Alpine rivals. Unfortunately they are going to have to do without Olympic downhill champion Didier Défago, who is injured.
The World Cup is all about amassing as many crystal globes as possible between now and the end of March.
When it comes to the World Championships in Germany’s Garmisch-Partenkirchen in February, however, the goals are more precise: at least four medals, equalling the haul from the previous championships in Val d’Isère in 2009.
Carlo Janka, giant slalom gold medallist in Vancouver and reigning overall World Cup champion, is Switzerland’s top trump.
“The World Championships will clearly be the focal point of the season. I’ll have a title to defend,” said the 24-year-old, who won gold in the giant slalom at Val d’Isère.
Janka, the “The Iceman”, is known for his incredibly laid-back attitude. “I’ve already won the three main alpine skiing titles. Whatever happens now is a bonus,” he told swissinfo.ch.
However, like last year Janka’s preparation has been disrupted by a mystery virus. He’s had to reduce his training sessions – a forced rest that could actually benefit him, if last winter’s results are anything to go by.
Veteran Didier Cuche will be Switzerland’s other major asset. Despite returning home empty-handed from the Olympics, he won gold in the super-G and silver in the downhill at Val d'Isère.
He also regained in 2009 the title of World Cup downhill champion and came third overall, behind Janka and Austria’s Benjamin Raich.
Since 2002, 36-year-old Cuche has come third overall a total of five times – does he hope to improve on this impressive consistency this year?
“That would be great! But the competition is tougher – Carlo Janka has an incredibly relaxed style of skiing,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“You’ve obviously also got to reckon with Benjamin Raich and Aksel Lund Svindal. What’s more, some technical skiers, such as Jean-Baptiste Grange and Ivica Kostelic, are increasingly adept at the speed disciplines.”
Daniel Albrecht will have to miss Sölden through injury, but he hopes to ski when the World Cup heads to North America at the end of November.
Albrecht crashed badly in January 2009 and ended up in an induced coma. He sat out the 2010 season.
Silvan Zurbriggen, Tobias Grünenfelder, Ambrosi Hoffmann and Patrick Küng are also all possible podium candidates.
Swiss fans will also be keeping an eye on promising World Cup rookie, 18-year-old Justin Murisier.
Nurturing young athletes is a priority for Swiss Ski. “The young ones must discover the top level more quickly and be able to prove that they can keep up,” said Mauro Pini, new head of the women’s team.
“Progress is quicker with the girls – Lara Gut proved that.”
The 19-year-old prodigy – Gut started her World Cup career at 16 and won silver medals in the downhill and the super combined at the World Championships in Val d’Isère – will be making her comeback after dislocating a hip in a fall.
“Accidents are part of professional sport – you can’t do anything about them,” she said. “If you take fewer risks, you ski more slowly. It’s as simple as that.”
In the speed disciplines Pini can count on the return from injury of Fränzi Aufdenblatten and Martina Schild. The target in Garmisch is two medals.
His biggest challenge however will be in the technical disciplines. No female skier from Switzerland has featured in an Olympic slalom since 2002.
Pini wants to form a stable and competitive team for the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, but first the skiers are going to have to deliver results this winter.
The 2010/11 World Cup starts this weekend with a giant slalom on the glacier of Sölden in Austria. The women ski on Saturday, the men on Sunday.
The circus comes to Switzerland on December 11, when St Moritz hosts a ladies super-G.
Other fixtures in Switzerland are Adelboden (January 8-9, 2011), Wengen (January 14-16), Lenzerheide (March 16-20).
The World Championships, which take place every two years, will be held in the German resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen from February 8-20. The junior World Championships are being held in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana from January 29-February 6.
(Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch