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Olympic Update

All hail Heil

She didn’t have the biggest or most technical jumps, but perfect turns and speed were all Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alberta needed to win the Olympic Gold medal on Saturday in the night moguls at Sauze d’Oulx – Canada’s first (and so far only gold) of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Heil is no stranger to the podium, with world championship and World Cup titles to her credit in recent years – in fact, it’s a rare event where she finishes outside of the top-five, and she’s already taken the overall moguls title even though she struggled early in the season.

Coming into this Olympic year, she made a risky decision not to boost the degree of difficult rating for her jumps, a 360 off the top air and a backflip-iron cross off the bottom air.

With Kari Traa laying down a near-perfect run just moments before, scoring a 25.65, Heil knew she had to be even better. She scored the highest turn scores of the day with an aggressive line down the middle, as well as the second-fastest run behind Laoura Sandra of France, who went on to finish third behind Traa. Her jumps were also solid, earning her close to perfect at a lower level of difficulty.

The net result was a score of 26.50, 0.85 ahead of Traa.

"The big thing is I’ve never been able to ski so quick and with such turns," Heil told the CBC. "I had the best turns of my life both in the semis and in the finals and just skied very light."

Hinting at the strength of the national freestyle team, three other Canadians qualified for the finals. Kristi Richards of Summerland, and Audrey Robichaud and Stephanie St. Pierre of Quebec were eighth, ninth and 12 th respectively.

Lipscomb gets to the finals

By Bob Mackin

BARDONECCHIA, ITALY — Whistler’s Crispin Lipscomb is among the dirty dozen of men’s halfpipe riders.

Lipscomb finished 11 th in the 12-man Olympic final at Bardonecchia Sunday, ensuring himself continued funding from Sport Canada as he looks forward to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

"Getting to the finals is the first step to the podium," Lipscomb said.

More than 6,000 spectators attended the halfpipe as Americans Shaun White and Daniel Kass finished with gold and silver. Bronze went to Finn Markku Koski.

"The conditions were great, the halfpipe softened up for the first time this week," Lipscomb said. "There were so many Canadians cheering us on. I’m going to take a lot of confidence into the next event."

His secret? He was wearing a white Vancouver Canucks jersey under his gear, bearing his name and 06. It’s his superstition.

Lipscomb is staying in Italy through Feb. 27 to enjoy some Olympic hockey and some video game-related events at British Columbia Canada Place.

The other Canadian riders, including Justin Lamoureux, Brad Martin and Hugo Lemay didn’t qualify for the finals in the top-12. Martin was 16 th , Lemay 18 th and Lamoureux 21 st out of 44 starters.

American riders also took the top two spots in the women’s halfpipe with Hannah Teter taking gold and Gretchen Bleiler the silver. Kjersti Buass of Norway claimed the bronze.

The top Canadian was Nova Scotia’s Sarah Conrad, who was the last of the Canadian women to qualify for a spot. She finished her day in 15 th place.

Whistler’s Mercedes Nicoll was in ninth at one point, but fell in her second qualifying run.

"I dropped in and I noticed the wind was blowing really hard and it messed me up," she told the CBC. "I’ve never fallen like that."

Dominique Vallee was 21 st and Maëlle Ricker 23 rd out of 40 starters.

French skier claims Olympic downhill gold

Deneriaz surprises Walchhofer, Kernen

By Bob Barnett

SESTRIERE, ITALY — Antoine Deneriaz was not happy about winning Saturday’s final downhill training run, but the French veteran stunned everyone – especially Austrian Michael Walchhofer – to claim the Olympic downhill title this afternoon.

Deneriaz was fastest at every interval and beat pre-race favourite Walchhofer by .72 seconds on a rock-hard course, under sunny skies.

Walchhofer, who won the Kitzbuhel downhill last month and leads the World Cup downhill standings this year, was the apparent winner. He had been giving interviews for 40 minutes before Deneriaz, who started 30 th , stunned everyone.

"Starting from the last position was difficult, but I attacked it," Deneriaz said.

"My race was incredible. When I was at the start I said to myself, ‘Do it. Do it. I have to attack.’ When I arrived at the finish line and I saw the time I thought it was incredible.

"It’s the best day of my life; it’s like a dream. No one believed it could be true."

Deneriaz tore knee ligaments in a training run at Chamonix in January of 2005 and has been working to regain his form in time for the Olympics.

"It was 13 long months," he said. "When I was carried by the helicopter I tried not to be too dramatic. I thought the Olympics are only every four years and I’m going to make it.

"The first month of rehabilitation was very hard. I was always thinking, ‘Okay, the Games, the Games, the Games are coming.’"

Walchhofer didn’t sound disappointed with the silver medal.

"It was great to catch silver," the Austrian said. "It was one of my toughest races ever. There was a lot of pressure on me and after all I was the fastest of the favourites."

Swiss Bruno Kernen, who won the 1997 world championship downhill on the Kandahar-Banchetta course at Sestriere, claimed the bronze medal, 1.02 seconds behind Deneriaz.

Whistler Mountain Ski Club alumnus Manuel Osborne-Paradis was the fastest Canadian, finishing 13th, 1.65 seconds behind Deneriaz. Osborne-Paradis started 29 th , just ahead of the Frenchman, but had trouble all week with the icy turns at the top of the course.

"I’m very satisfied with my race. I didn’t ski as well as yesterday but I’m glad with how I dealt with the pressures. I can build on this for the upcoming races and for the next four years."

Francois Bourque, of New Richmond, Quebec, was 16 th , 1.90 seconds out, and Calgary’s John Kucera was 27 th , 2.75 seconds off the pace.

The Canadians, the youngest team in an Olympic downhill race dominated by veterans, were aiming for top 15 finishes today.

Deneriaz’s victory was a surprise for a number of reasons. Although he has three World Cup downhill victories to his name, he had only two top-10 finishes this season as he recovered from knee surgery.

He inadvertently won Saturday’s final downhill training run despite slowing down before the finish line. When he crossed the line Saturday and realized he had the fastest time he threw his arms up in the air in dismay.

Winning the last training run meant Deneriaz started 30 th today, as the top 30 in the last training run start in reverse order in the race. Most of the top racers stood up before the finish Saturday in hopes of landing a start number between about seven and 15.

Despite the clear, cold weather all week, which kept the course consistent for all skiers, most thought an early start number would be an advantage.

Walchhofer threw in several check turns before the finish Saturday and wound up with start number 10 today. The gamesmanship nearly paid off as his time held up until Denriaz’s shocking run.

Norwegian veteran Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who has more Olympic medals than any other alpine skier, almost claimed another today. Aamodt was wild off the Angel Jump at the top of the course, and skidded on landing, but carried speed all the way down the mountain to wind up fourth.

American Bode Miller claimed fifth place but still held out hope after the race was over.

"Those guys might get disqualified and I could step in there," he joked.

Miller said he made some small mistakes but didn’t think they cost him too much time.

"I was really fired up and I wanted to execute the race," he said. "I did execute but I just didn’t have the speed."

Of Deneriaz Miller said: "He is a fantastic skier. He crushed us all in Val Gardena (where Deneriaz won two winters ago), which is a similar course to this one."

Deneriaz is the fifth French male to become Olympic downhill champion, joining Jean-Luc Cretier (Nagano 1998), Jean-Claude Killy (Grenoble 1968), Jean Vuarnet (Squaw Valley 1960) and Henri Oreiller (St. Moritz 1948).

Ligety wins combined gold

Raich, Miller both miss gates in night slalom

By Bob Barnett

SESTRIERE, Italy — Bode Miller still hasn’t won a medal at the 2006 Olympics, but teammate Ted Ligety took some of the pressure off the Americans when he won the men’s combined Tuesday evening.

Racing under the lights and before a large audience seated in grandstands, Austrian Benjamin Raich looked poised to win the race. He had a .52 second lead halfway through his second slalom run, when he suddenly missed a gate and skied off course.

Ligety, a 21-year-old slalom specialist from Park City, edged Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic by .53 seconds to win the gold medal. Rainer Schoenfelder salvaged some measure of pride for the Austrians by claiming the bronze.

"After the downhill it wasn’t really in my plans to be in this position," Ligety said. "I had a mediocre first slalom run but I was still fourth (overall). The second course definitely suited me better."

Kostilic was in tears at the finish as he hugged his sister, Janica and then walked up to the podium on his hands.

The Kostilic siblings have won multiple world championship and Olympic medals, but Ivica has also had to overcome numerous injuries, including five knee operations in four years.

Raich was the bronze medalist in the combined four years ago at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Miller won the silver medal in that race.

Miller said he isn’t too disappointed at being shut out of the medals after two events at these Olympics, but the pressure from the American media is starting to build.

Miller came charging out of the gate in the combined downhill in the morning, beating Swiss Didier Defago by .32 seconds and seemingly determined to make up for his fifth place finish in Sunday’s downhill.

But he straddled a gate in the first of two runs in the evening’s combined slalom. Miller has started eight slaloms this winter but finished only two.

"It’s not the first time it’s happened," Miller said. I don’t tend to get that disappointed. At least I don’t have to go all the way down to Torino (for a medal) tomorrow."

Ligety’s victory seemed a long shot in the morning. He finished 32 nd in the downhill portion of the combined, 3.06 seconds behind Miller. He won the first run of the slalom on a course he didn’t particularly like and then was relaxed for the second slalom run.

"I had a good feeling after the first couple of gates, then I just tried to make speed at each turn," Ligety said.

Raich was 13 th in the morning downhill, more than 2 seconds off Miller’s pace, but was second in the first slalom run to move into first overall.

Miller and Raich weren’t the only ones to have trouble with the slalom – Defago, downhill silver medalist Michael Walchhofer and Norwegians Lasse Kjus and Aksel Lund Svindal were among the 12 competitors who failed to finish the first run. However, Miller seems to attract the most attention. The video screen at the bottom of the slalom hill repeatedly showed him straddling a gate at the end of a flush. A story in Monday’s USA Today referred to Miller’s "beer gut" and suggested that may be why he failed to win a medal in the downhill.

But Miller said he was ready for the Olympics.

"I’m prepared for these races. As you can see, I came out of the downhill and I was ready to be on the podium. A few things didn’t go my way. Obviously I was in position to win by a significant margin even with poor skiing in the first run. I’m prepared to ski well in all the events I’m in. It’s just a matter of execution. You still have to execute, even if you’re absolutely prepared."

The Canadians in the combined were speedskiers Manuel Osborne-Paradis, John Kucera and Francois Borque, and technical skier Ryan Semple.

Osborne-Paradis, the Whistler Mountain Ski Club alumnus, was eighth in this morning’s downhill, 1.33 seconds behind Miller, but was six seconds off the pace in the first slalom run. He elected not to start the second run.

Kucera wound up 17 th while Bourque was 21 st .

Mont Tremblant’s Semple was 35 th in the morning downhill but hooked a tip on the second gate in the first slalom run.