Gagnon leads ski team into 2012-13 

Four skiers in top 30 at world cup opener; Gagnon places sixth in giant slalom

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The Canadian women's technical team, which scored a pair of medals at the end of last season, looked to start this season off on the right ski boot at the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria this past weekend.

Marie-Michele Gagnon topped the team with her sixth place finish in the women's giant slalom, overcoming poor conditions on her second run to earn her first top 10 of the season.

"It's definitely a really good start to the season," said Gagnon, who was Canada's most consistent technical skier last winter and rounded out the season with her first career World Cup medal.

"I didn't come in with many expectations. I've been skiing well, but I was just hoping for top 30, really.

"It was quite hard to see anything on the second run. But this summer we had a few days like that in Saas-Fee (Switzerland) at our camp so we had a chance to practice skiing in those conditions. It was an advantage to know that we just needed to attack and trust that the snow was good."

Gagnon was sitting ninth after her first run, but moved up three spots despite the thick fog and high winds.

Joining Gagnon in the top 30 was Marie-Pier Prefontaine, who posted her best giant slalom result in two years with a 19th place finish, moving up one spot after her first run.

"I had a great first run," she said. "My second run was not so good. I made a few mistakes, but at least I know that if I don't make mistakes I can do well. I'm happy with my day."

Slovenia's Tina Maze took the first gold medal of the season, while Austrians Kathrin Zettel and Stefanie Koehle placed second and third.

Erin Mielzynski, the third Canadian in the race, did not qualify for a second run.

The women's team will be back on the slopes in Levi, Finland for the opening slalom races on Nov. 10.

In the men's giant slalom, two Canadians finished in the points. Jean-Philippe Roy placed 17th overall, while Dustin Cook was 22nd after two runs. Only 23 racers finished both runs out of 70 starters.

That might seem like a modest start for Canada, but it was the first time since December 2009 that two members of the men's technical team have finished in the top 30 in a giant slalom race.

Roy came into this season looking for top 10 results, but made a mistake on the bottom section that put him back in the field.

"Both runs I skied pretty good down the pitch but I had trouble on the flats," Roy explained. "Finishing 17th is better than nothing but I need to work on the flats. Other than that there's some positive stuff (to build on). Dustin skied very well on the first run and on the second run visibility was really bad. You had to attack the course and he did a good job to finish."

Cook had a harder start to the day with bib number 54 at the start, but he managed to place 27th to qualify in the top 30 for a second run. With snow, fog and poor light, Cook managed to advance five spots while seven other athletes crashed, straddled gates or skied off course.

It was the first time that Cook has finished in the top 30 at a World Cup race.

"It kinds of feels like — finally," he said. "I've had a really good training block and I knew making top 30 was a possibility. I just tried to ski like I did in training and scrapped to the finish. It's definitely something I can build on."

Trevor Philip also raced for Canada, placing 43rd.

The winner was Olympic champion Ted Ligety by a full 1.75 seconds, followed by Manfred Moelgg of Italy and Marcel Hirscher of Austria.

New skis debut at Soelden

The Soelden races marked the first World Cup races using an older style of ski that was mandated by the International Skiing Federation in order to reduce the number of injuries in the sport. The switch to shorter skis with a tighter turning radius was placing too much stress on knees and lower legs, they found, and as a result they have been requiring skis with a wider turning radius and other modifications.

One of the most outspoken critics of the decision is American skier Ted Ligety, who argued that the skis would slow racers down without doing anything to enhance safety. He also pointed out that the more serious injuries were in the speed disciplines, while injuries in GS were rarer and less severe.

Despite winning the opening race on the new skis, Ligety stood by his earlier assessment on his blog, www.tedligety.com: "They (the new skis) definitely take some getting used to, aren't easy to warm up on and take some more muscling but as long as the snow is hard, they ski well and are probably faster in most World Cup conditions. Out of principle I do have to say I still believe they are not safer, they will be hell for younger, smaller FIS kids and they don't turn in soft (conditions). Though, interestingly enough, the Speed skis are way easier for me to ski on."

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