By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM, Jan 21 (Reuters) - With his scintillating form, Aksel Lund Svindal's combination of skill and mental strength make him the man to beat on the slopes in Sochi.
Arguably the fastest ski racer on the planet, there is no better preparation for an Olympic championship than racing fast going into the Games, the Norwegian downhill skier told the International Ski Federation website (www.fis-ski.com).
"For me, if I can ski fast in the World Cup, then I know I can ski fast in the Olympics," Svindal said.
His form this season has drawn praise across the board, prompting Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Norway's most-decorated ski racer, to declare: "He has been outstanding - all the rest are just extras."
The 31-year-old Svindal tops the World Cup rankings and few would bet against him adding to his Olympic haul of gold, silver and bronze from the Vancouver Games in 2010.
The genial Norwegian has amassed four World Cup victories so far this season, with his win in Bormio, Italy, in December providing a clue to his mental strength.
A year previously, he had lost out in the same event by just one hundredth of a second, finishing third behind joint winners Hannes Reichelt and Dominik Paris.
But he roared back, winning the race in December by almost four-tenths of a second to secure his 25th World Cup victory.
"You win Bormio in the last part, because everyone is tired. It's a mix of you're tired and it's a bit scary," Svindal told reporters after that race. "The last 30 seconds is where you win or lose the race."
As he has done often, Svindal took what appeared to be a major setback and turned it into something positive.
Having lost his mother, who died in childbirth when he was eight years old, the popular Norwegian's friendly demeanor has masked a steely determination and an ability to overcome the odds.
Born just outside of the Norwegian capital of Oslo, he moved 400 kilometers north at the age of 15 to the town of Oppdal, where he combined skiing and school for the final four years of his education before concentrating on the sport full-time.
Four medals at the junior World Championships in Tarvisio, Italy in 2002 convinced him he was on the right path, and his career was still soaring before a wipeout at Colorado in 2007 where he suffered serious injuries in a violent crash on a training run at Beaver Creek.
Coming off a jump towards the end of the course at an estimated speed of 125 kilometers an hour, Svindal misjudged the jump and landed badly on his back, sliding into a fence.
"I remember thinking in the air: 'this is not good,'" he told Norway's TV2.
"When I landed, I passed out pretty quickly. After that I just remember bits and pieces, when I was in and out of consciousness.
"I remember wondering why there was so much blood, then I fainted again. I felt like giving up."
The blood came from a deep gash in his left buttock caused by one of his skis. He also broke a bone in his back and had several fractures to his face.
He went on to spend three weeks in hospital and several months getting over his injuries, but despite admitting to being afraid, he returned to the mountain the following year and won both the downhill and Super G races at Beaver Creek in spectacular style.
Having first strapped on a pair of skis at the age of three, Svindal's life has been dedicated to the sport, and he has made a point - publicly, at least - of not having any plans for what he will do when his career is over.
Nor is he sentimental about his achievements, saying that most of his trophies and medals are somewhere in his father's basement.
"Having the medal so you can look at it every day? It's not important to me. It's the memories from when you got it, that's what's important."
The current season has seen him back to his best, and Norwegians - fanatical fans of their winter sports athletes - will be expecting medals from him in Sochi.
His popularity is not limited to his sporting prowess either. In 2013, Elle magazine voted him Norway's sexiest man.
Despite his excellent season so far, the five-time world champion will not be taking any risks when it comes to preparations for Sochi, wanting to be both mentally and physically ready.
"The best guys in the world are going to be at the start, just like in the World Cup, so it's the same challenge - just a little more fun." (Editing by Gene Cherry)
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- Aksel Lund Svindal