American Travis Ganong was instructed to “trust himself” during his downhill run Saturday at the world championships, so he did and earned a breakthrough silver medal, lifting the U.S. spirits after Bode Miller wasn't able to race because of injury.
Patrick Kueng of Switzerland was told by a teammate before the race to just fly. He listened and won with a consistent and concise run that was just enough to hold off Ganong. Kueng earned his first world title by completing the demanding course in 1 minute 43.18 seconds.
Ganong finished 0.24 seconds behind Kueng, while Beat Feuz of Switzerland earned bronze.
“I just turned my brain off, put a smile on my face and had some fun,” Ganong said as he raced in front of a packed venue on home snow and with the sun shining.
This was a banner day for the Swiss and the Americans, each placing three racers in the top 10. A forgetful one for the Austrians as the first country of skiing didn't have anyone finish higher than 12th (Sochi Olympics downhill gold medalist Matthias Mayer).
What's more, Austria hasn't had a men's downhiller on the podium at worlds since Michael Walchhofer earned a bronze in 2005.
Coincidentally, that's the last time the Americans had a skier on the downhill podium at worlds, when Miller and Daron Rahlves finished 1-2.
Miller didn't race Saturday after having surgery to fix a severed right hamstring tendon following a bad crash in the super-G.
“The great champion that everybody expected to do something unfortunately had a bad accident,” U.S. men's coach Sasha Rearick said of Miller. “But the rest of the guys stepped up. They skied relaxed, free and sent it.”
It was actually Feuz who provided some inspiration to Kueng, reminding him not to play it safe.
“I said, `Why not try your best today?“’ Feuz said. “Maybe I shouldn't tell him this in the future. But we share our joy as a team.”
To think, Kueng almost didn't race. He had to qualify in a downhill training session the day before just to make the Swiss squad. He finished 13th to secure his spot.
Lucky No. 13 turned into No. 1 on race day.
“I know everything is possible. I was really charging,” Kueng said. “In the past years, when I took part in medal events, I had no good events. I thought, `Why not today?' My season has been pretty disappointing. I was feeling really confident and knew I could achieve a smooth and confident run down the slope.
“I love this mountain. I'm lucky to sit here.”
Ganong was motivated by teammate Steven Nyman's course report. Nyman called up to the start house after his blistering run and told Ganong the hill was ripe for the carving. Ganong didn't hold anything back and attacked the course. He pumped his ski poles after seeing his time on the scoreboard.
Only, he knocked Nyman off the podium. Sure, Nyman was pleased for Ganong, but disappointed he finished in fourth.
“He laid it down,” Nyman said. “I'm happy with my run.”
Ganong also got some prerace advice from Rahlves, who's well-versed in the nuances of this course. The other night, Rahlves even showed Ganong the video of his 2003 World Cup win at Beaver Creek, when Rahlves flew down the course. Rahlves pointed out places where Ganong could gain speed. Ganong carefully listened.
“What Daron always teaches me is to look for aerodynamics in specific places so you can take the turn deep to get into that aerodynamic position,” said the 26-year-old Ganong, who's from Squaw Valley, California. “You can't stay aerodynamic if you get tossed around sometimes.
“I pushed hard today and it worked out.”
Nyman had the fastest early run before being knocked out of the lead by Feuz. Andrew Weibrecht, racing back in the pack at No. 35, had an electric run going before slowing near the finish. He wound up tied for ninth.
Ganong is loaded with confidence these days after winning his first World Cup race on Dec. 28 in Italy. And now this, his first medal at world championships.
“All day long I was super relaxed and just having a good time,” Ganong said. “It was unbelievable — skiing is the most fun thing you can do. When it works out well at a venue, on a stage like this, it's just so special.”