WORLD CUP SKIING : When It Matters Most, Mader Comes Through for the Upset

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It came down to a showdown of Olympians, the faceoff most hoped for, a paparazzi's dream.

Italy's Alberto Tomba, the two-time defending gold-medal winner in giant slalom, against Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, the defending GS world champion and the greatest threat to Tomba's reign.

Tomba or Aamodt. Which would it be? Aamodt, the 13th racer down the course in the second run of Saturday's World Cup giant slalom at the Subaru America's Opener, had dramatically snatched the lead from France's Franck Piccard.

Tomba, up next, threw himself into the course and attacked the hill, lunging across the finish line one-tenth of a second faster than Aamodt.

One racer remained among the top-seeded skiers: Guenther Mader, an Austrian who finished 33rd overall in GS last season and whose only World Cup GS victory came in 1989.

Mader had climbed from his 17th-seeded position to take the lead in the first run. No one figured he could do it twice.

But Mader, 29, crashed an Italian party with a second-run time of 59.86 seconds to nip Tomba by .02 and claim victory.

Mader's two-run time was 2:00.61. Tomba finished second in 2:00.63, with Aamodt third in 2:00.73.

Mader might have looked around the podium and wondered what he was doing in such company. But he knows that Austrian boys are born to win ski races. "If you win, it's a nice feeling," he said. "It doesn't matter who you beat."

Mader is no slouch. He is a four-event skier, born and bred by the Austrian ski factory, but his specialties are tailored more to speed events. He was the bronze-medal winner in the Olympic downhill at Albertville, and his last World Cup victory--last year at Whistler, Canada--was in super-giant slalom.

Mader has been under much pressure in his home country because he has broken from the Austrian team concept and worked with a private coach, Robert Trenkwalder.

"The pressure comes from there being so many good skiers (in Austria), and so many good skiers in each event," Mader said.

Although he finished fourth in the World Cup standings last year, Mader is not a cinch to make the Austrian Olympic team in all four disciplines. Only skiers ranked in the top 15 in each event are exempt from Austrian Olympic trials.

With his victory Saturday, Mader became seeded No. 1 in GS, making his win all the more important.

Not surprisingly, the Americans were not a factor in GS. Yet, a respectable showing did not seem too much to expect from Jeremy Nobis, who was hoping to get a hometown boost. Nobis, from Park City, grew up skiing these slopes and, in particular, the GS course on Willy's Run.

But the 23-year-old was stiff out of the gates and down the course. He started 36th, but did not qualify for a second run. His time, 1:02.86, was more than two seconds slower than Mader's first-run time.

Nobis finished 42nd. Only the top 30 finishers in the first run qualified for the second. No American cracked the top 30.

Nobis' fastest run of the day was from the media. After his race, he stormed off, stepped over a retaining fence, said he had nothing to say, hopped back into his skis and disappeared down the mountain.

The top American finisher was Harper Phillips, who was 35th, followed by Chris Puckett (49th) and Paul Casey Puckett (53rd). Erik Schlopy and Scott Wither did not finish their first runs.

The World Cup event concludes today with a slalom, which will again feature Tomba and Aamodt along with Sweden's Tomas Fogdoe, last year's World Cup slalom champion.

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