Maria Hoefl-Riesch came into Monday's super combined final looking up at four skiers, with the daunting task of making up more than a second in the slalom run.
She left with a gold medal.
Hoefl-Riesch went through the slalom in 50.90 seconds, giving her an overall time of 2:34.62 to take her second consecutive super combined gold medal. Austrian Nicole Hosp took home silver with an overall 2:35.02, while United States hopeful Julia Mancuso scored bronze at 2:35.15.
Hoefl-Riesch gives Germany its second gold medal of these Sochi Games. Luger Felix Loch previously gave the country its first top honors on Sunday.
The super combined competition is a relatively new, unique event that combines skiing disciplines to theoretically find the best all-around person on the slopes. The first day of the competition involves downhill skiing, followed by a second day of slalom. Typically, downhill features the highest scores and is the longest discipline, while slalom shortens the skis and forces the competitors into a more winding and technical strategy.
The German, considered by most as a considerable favorite coming into the super combined final, was the defending champion in both this event and the slalom from Vancouver. However, her downhill was far more of a struggle than she would like. Finishing fifth overall, Hoefl-Riesch needed a stellar run in her favorite discipline to have a chance at a comeback.
"It wasn't perfect but a lot can still happen in the slalom," Hoefl-Riesch told Reuters' Martyn Herman.
Mancuso came into Monday's slalom run having opened up a surprising lead over the field. Her 1:42.68 time gave her a solid 0.47-second lead over Swiss Lara Gut and a 0.86-second advantage over Slovak Tina Maze, but the real key was her advantage over the defending champion.
Mancuso, who often struggles in the slalom style, expressed confidence she could come away with gold coming into Monday's run:
It felt good. I was definitely looking for extra speed when I kicked out of the start gate. I was really happy to cross the finish line and see I was in the lead. But that other run is pretty tough and it's not my strength. But I'm really going to try my best. Anything is possible at the Olympics, you can never count anyone out.
The field played out almost exactly how Mancuso would have liked, with Hoefl-Riesch giving her an attainable time for gold. Mancuso, who at multiple points had to save her run from disaster, still managed to go through the first checkpoint with the proverbial "green light" on with nearly a half-second advantage. But as she worked her way down the slope, she wasn't able to let go of the skis in time to really create any positive headway.
By the time she crossed the finish line, she had fallen not only behind Hoefl-Riesch but Hosp as well. The American, seemingly relieved, threw both her arms up in celebration for bronze. It was her fourth Olympic medal, the most in history for a female alpine skier, and her third straight with at least one medal. Still, as Dan Levy of Bleacher Report pointed out, Mancuso was probably feeling more mixed emotions than jubilation:
Julia Mancuso lost her lead, settled for bronze in the Super Combined. Has to be one of those relieved/happy/disappointed situations for her— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) February 10, 2014
Hosp came into the second day in eighth place, but threw down a stellar performance in the slalom to put herself in contention. Picking up her skis at the perfect time and pushing her way downhill toward the end of the run, the Austrian took the lead over the field by more than a second and watched the final seven skiers hoping for a medal.
Though each of the skiers remaining held an initial advantage, the field soon broke wide open. Elisabeth Goergl and Lotte Smiseth Sejersted both faltered and broke their runs early before Hoefel-Riesch surpassed Hosp's pace. Then came poor runs by Anna Fenniger and Maze, along with another quick out from Gut.
The 30-year-old Austrian now has two silver medals on her shelf, this being the far more surprising of the pair.
But Monday, as with most of these competitions of late, belonged to Hoefl-Riesch. Consistently ranked among the three best skiers in the world on the season-long standings, the German has a sense for the moment. Her ability to combine disciplines and stick within the top five in downhill and slalom highlights a skill set totally unique within the sport.
Looking forward, Monday's victory establishes Hoefl-Riesch as the unquestioned favorite for the slalom final on Feb. 21. Michaela Kirchgasser of Austria and Sarka Strachova of the Czech Republic look to be formidable opponents after their stellar runs—both turned in better slalom times despite not medaling—but you have to beat the champ to be the champ.
Mancuso and Hosp proved unable in super combined. We'll have to see what happens when it's all slalom all the time.
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