Besting a gutsy run by Tina Maze of Slovenia and a strong performance by gold-medal favorite Lindsey Vonn, Fischbacher doused the flames of fury back home generated by disappointing performances from the men’s squad.
With 14 medals at the 2006 Games, Austria came into these Olympics as a heavy favorite – albeit one strongly rivaled by a resurgent Swiss team. But it has been US skiers who have matched the brilliance of the sun here, winning roughly half the medals so far. And that made a country whose pride rides on its racers’ skis very upset.
“There is so much pressure in Austria. Nobody cared when the men’s luge doubles won the country’s first gold,” says Tino Teller, an Austrian journalist covering alpine skiing here. “Everybody back home was asking, ‘When will be the first gold in alpine? The whole nation was sitting in front of the TV at 5, 6, 7 p.m., waiting.”
Fischbacher knew that when she stepped into the gate today.
“The men yesterday had a really bad day,” said the Austrian, who missed bronze in the downhill by only 0.03 seconds. “Everybody was looking a little bit to us to make it better."
And did she ever. Though trailing Vonn on the tricky top section of the course, she floored it through the middle section to finish 0.74 seconds ahead of the US favorite.
“It’s very important for the spirit of the whole team,” says Herbert Mandl, head coach for the women’s team. “For sure the men suffered yesterday, and we suffered with them."
Vonn: I'll cherish bronze and gold equally
After the last racer came down, a smiling Vonn stepped onto the podium waving to a crowd full of American flags – celebrating her second medal this week after overcoming a shin injury that cast a shadow over America’s most vaunted athlete coming into these Games.
She laid down a dominant run at the top of the course, skiing very well through a turn that gave many racers – including teammate Julia Mancuso, who finished 9th – serious trouble. But after that, she said, she backed off.
“I think I just stopped charging … that was my only mistake – just not attacking as much as I could have and should have,” she said, adding that her bronze was still an Olympic medal – and joking that it was almost the same color as the gold she won in downhill. “They’ll be hanging up next to my bed and I will cherish both of those medals equally.”
“A medal is a medal,” agreed US women’s head coach Jim Tracy, who said no one was disappointed with bronze. But, noting that Vonn was perhaps a little conservative in the lower portion of the course, he commended the aggressiveness o f Maze and Fischbacher.
Hermannators and Pac-Man
“In the Olympics it’s all about putting it all on the line. That was classic today of Fischbacher – she was either going to win, or go out,” he said. “Andrea is a risk-taker. She doesn’t go for second-best.”
Like her second cousin Hermann Maier, known as the “Hermannator” for his dominant performances – particularly in the speed events – Fischbacher's run was worthy of her first win at a major international event.
It helped that her coach, Jürgen Kriechbaum, was the one who set the course – a duty that rotates among coaches from different countries.
“He was really thinking hard how he would set the course,” said Fischbacher. “He was making a perfect course for me.”
Fischbacher’s young teammate Anna Fenninger agreed that it played to her strengths.
“It was really a course for Andrea – it was really hard to be fast. So much speed, so many turns, and bumpy,” said Fenninger, who finished 16th and third for Austria. “When I saw [her run], I thought, that’s it” – she won.
But Kreichbaum, who had complained upon arriving at the athletes' village in Whistler that he had no TV, joked that it was Pac-Man that brought Fischbacher gold.
“The coaches played Pac-Man before the downhill,” when Elisabeth Goergl won bronze, said Kreichbaum, who now has a TV and Internet in his room. “And we played Pac-Man yesterday, so maybe this is the reason” for Austria’s success.
Slovenia's first-ever silver in Winter Olympics
While Vonn is generally stronger in the speed events that are now over, Maze – Slovenia’s flag-bearer, who has finished in the top 8 all week here – is stronger in Giant Slalom.
“She’s a threat in every single event,” said Tracy, the US coach. “Tina’s a fighter … she deserves this.”
Tentative on the downhill earlier in the week, she was beaming after her performance today, which earned Slovenia its first silver medal in a Winter Olympic sport.
“I’m happy that I did do the downhill and felt the fear, and [then] showed all the courage today,” said Maze, who dedicated her performance to injured athletes who couldn’t compete.
Earlier in the week, Maze’s teammate Petra Majdic came back after a hard crash in warm-up to win bronze in the cross-country sprint – only to find out later that she did it with four broken ribs.
Slovenia’s press chief Branislav Dimitrovic said that while she will be unable to race any more at these Games, he hopes she will be able to return today from the Vancouver hospital where she’s been staying.
“Maybe she will celebrate this silver medal with us tonight,” he said.