IT is not surprising, given that he lost four litres of blood and suffered severe internal injuries, that it has taken Marc Girardelli just over three years to recover fully from a near fatal crash in a ski race and resume his position as the world's best all-round racer.
It was in December 1989 that Girardelli hit the rocks at the side of the super-giant slalom course in Sestriere in Italy with body-shattering results. 'I could have been killed in that crash,' he said. Now he stands a huge 241 points clear at the top of the World Cup rankings, and all that remains to prove he is right back to his best is to win a downhill for the first time since his accident.
He has a fine chance when St Anton stages the fifth downhill of the season today. 'I feel ready to win a downhill again,' Girardelli said. 'It would be one of my greatest achievements.'
Girardelli, who was born in Austria but skis for Luxembourg, proved he has his confidence back for the all-out speed event with two top quality performances on a near-lethal piste at Garmisch last week, where he finished fifth on successive days. And the twists and turns of St Anton's course will suit his technical skills perfectly.
There is also a slalom at nearby Lech tomorrow, and the two races will count as a combined event, which should see Girardelli extend his World Cup lead still further. Alberto Tomba, in second place, does not ski downhills and so cannot score in the combined.
In downhill almost more than any other sport, a competitor's mental approach must be precisely right. With only hundredths of a second separating racers in a two-minute hurtle down the mountain, controlled aggression and fearlessness are vital, and it is here that Girardelli has been working hardest. 'When I looked at the videos of races before, I realised that I was being too passive and was not attacking the mountain,' he said. 'But at the end of last season it improved a lot and I was again able to ski more aggressively. It has got progressively better since.'
Girardelli, who won the 40th race of his career in a super-giant slalom at St Anton in midweek, is fourth in the downhill standings, 55 points behind the Swiss world champion, Franz Heinzer.
Heinzer, leader of the Swiss team who have won four of the five races this season, was fastest in training yesterday. Girardelli was 12th. Heinzer was not overjoyed with the conditions. 'It's tougher than Garmisch and it demands a lot of you physically,' he said. Girardelli will need every bit of his new confidence today.Reuse content