Svindal proves difficult to catch this season

PAT GRAHAM AP Sports Writer Published:

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) -- Most of the skiers are closely watching Aksel Lund Svindal these days, just to see what path he takes down the hill.

Because his way is pretty much going to be the fastest way.

That's how much fellow competitors respect the powerful Norwegian, copying anything they can from the racer who's been so hard to catch this season -- for the last few seasons, really.

His secret to being swift on the slopes may be as simple as this: Happiness and health. He's dating Olympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso and training with more vigor than he has in years.

It's clearly carrying over onto the course, where he's performing almost better than he has since, well, before that scary day in Beaver Creek five years ago when he suffered a season-ending crash in a training run.

And while others may be watching him this week, he's paying close attention to the course. He knows painfully well the consequences of one tiny mistake.

The 29-year-old Svindal broke his nose and cheekbone in that 2007 crash when he lost control over a jump and landed on his backside. Even worse, he slid into the fencing, but not before passing over one of his razor-sharp skis, which gave him a six-inch laceration on his left buttock, a cut that had doctors so concerned they went into his stomach to make sure everything internally was still intact.

Being back here doesn't raise his blood pressure, just his awareness.

"If you do something bad, at least you can learn from it, right? I have respect for what happened," said Svindal, who finished 17th during a safe downhill training run Wednesday in which Travis Ganong of the U.S. had the top time. "I made a mistake. It's better to think about it as, 'I messed up and I better not do it again.'"

He then chuckled.

"But if I was going to crash hard and go to the hospital, this is a good place to do it," said Svindal, who spent weeks healing in Vail after the crash, with the ski slopes visible from his window. "I really do like this place -- not that I want to go to the hospital again."

Since then, he's made peace with the Birds of Prey course.

In his return after his harrowing crash, he won two races. In all, he has eight podium finishes at this venue.

"Here, he's the big favorite," Klaus Kroell of Austria said.

Anywhere, really.

Svindal captured both races in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend. That's only happened twice before, with those skiers -- Stephan Eberharter and Bode Miller -- going on to win the overall title.

Svindal is keenly aware of that piece of trivia.

"My comeback to that is maybe they didn't have Marcel Hirscher to fight," Svindal said of the Austrian technical specialist who's the reigning overall champion. "He wasn't in Lake Louise and I have a feeling he's going to win a lot of slalom and giant slalom races this year. It's way too early. There's so much that can happen."

Had things been different, Svindal could have raced against Lindsey Vonn in Lake Louise. Vonn requested to ski against the men in a downhill race, only to be rejected by the International Ski Federation.

Svindal would've welcomed the challenge.

"From a marketing perspective, it would be very good for our sport," he said. "For America, you need stories that are bigger than the sport to attract a crowd that really doesn't follow ski racing. A story like that would sell very well in the U.S."

Yeah, but could she be competitive?

"On good conditions that suit her well, I think she could do pretty well. I really do," Svindal said. "I don't think she could win the race, but I think she could get World Cup points.

"She's a good skier. I've trained with her. I know she's a good skier."

It's his relationship with another American skier -- Mancuso -- that frequently gets brought up.

"We try not to make such a big deal out of it," he said. "But it's there, so it's natural that there are some questions about it."

Namely, who's the better surfer?

After all, Mancuso is pretty talented on the waves.

"I do mostly stand-up paddle surfing," Svindal said. "I really like the challenge of keeping the balance on the board when there are no waves. It's like dry land training."

This season, Svindal has really taken his dry land training to another level. Sure, he did all the basics -- running hill sprints and lifting weights -- but after that, when the time was his, he hit the beaches in Hawaii for some sort of water activity. Or, he took off on a long bike ride.

All part of his plan to be fitter than the rest.

"The easiest thing to do for your confidence is to do more than others are doing," Svindal said. "I have no faith in the fact you can be smarter than everyone else. You have to work hard.

"Being in control of what's going on on the hill doesn't mean you're winning, but you know what it takes to win."

He certainly does. He won the overall in 2007 and then again in 2009 when he returned from his crash in Beaver Creek. Svindal also captured three medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games, including gold in the super-G.

So naturally, all eyes are on him.

"If I could choose, I'd rather not have that. But I'd rather be fast than slow and that comes with being fast," Svindal said. "Being an athlete, and competing at the top, that's something you get used to. When you're on fire, people are watching you. They're watching all your runs on video, watching you in inspection, what line you take. You're watched. When you're in the tank and not performing, no one is watching."