KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – One skier missed a turn. Others fell. A handful went sideways. Even the downhill gold medalist from these Olympic Games spun out. And like the climate seemingly every day in Sochi, the havoc in the women's super-G was just heating up.
Rosa Khutor's slushy mountain ultimately claimed 18 skiers who failed to finish the event Saturday – an Olympic record worst, breaking the mark of 15 set on a much-maligned run in the 2010 Vancouver Games. The conditions creating the debacle varied, from a course that featured a final pitch requiring direction into a turn, to the unreliable surface conditions that have come to mar much of the skiing in Sochi.
Austria's coaches set the course, and it was notable that two of their top skiers – Anna Fenninger and Nicole Hosp, took gold and bronze in the event. Another Austrian skier, Elisabeth Goergl, failed to finish. Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch seized silver, while the United States missed the podium in the event.
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Clearly, the tricky run ruffled plenty of feathers, and the fact that it was an Austrian-set course and an Austrian-dominated podium was not lost on some.
"Maybe the Austrians have an advantage because the setter is their coach," said Italy's Daniela Merighetti showing some frustration after failing to finish. "I am not saying that it is going to be easy for them, but easier."
But the Austrian course-setter, coach Florian Winkler, said the run was fair and not set specifically to suit his skiers. Instead, he said it was meant to be difficult and force some thought and tactics.
"It was our goal for the course," Winkler said. "Still fair, but you have to think more. I was surprised by the number of girls who skied out. It was a day of mistakes for many. … You have to ski technically. We watched the first skiers make some mistakes and send the information through [to teammates waiting at the top of mountain]."
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It undoubtedly triggered a rush for information as one skier after another dropped out. Spain's Carolina Ruiz Castillo was the first to push off in the event and failed to finish. The United States' Leanne Smith went next and managed to make the full run, albeit with a handful of costly mistakes. But it was the landslide after Smith that raised eyebrows – when six straight skiers failed out – and sent skiers rushing to provide intelligence to their teammates. Even downhill gold medalist Dominique Gisin of Switzerland failed to get the correct line despite going 11th.
Smith was in such a hurry to deliver information after her run that she nearly ran down the American press officer waiting to greet her. All the while, other skiers huddled around a monitor at the top of the mountain, watching skiers fall and trying to solve the problems from above. Many skiers said it was the two pitches, one near the top and one near the bottom, that were pushing skiers off their line and ultimately off the course.
"I think we all underestimated the track after inspection and thought there would be less problems," Switzerland's Fabienne Suter said. "It's more difficult with the soft snow."
The 18 DNFs claimed two of four American starters – Stacey Cook and Laurenne Ross – as the U.S. once again missed the podium in an Alpine event. Smith, who was the first skier to complete the course, finished 18th. The early string of mistakes also clearly got into the head of medal contender Julia Mancuso. Known for going big in Olympic events, Mancuso admitted to pulling back in an effort to complete the course, finishing a solid but cautious eighth.
"Watching so many people go down, and to have that [difficult] run, it kind of took me back a notch in my confidence," said Mancuso, whose starting position of 14th allowed her to witness eight skiers fail out before her run. "I left the start gate wanting to ski well – not necessarily wanting to win. For sure in my mind I wanted to win. But I feel like … after I got down to the bottom of the run, it was definitely conservative."
Saturday's near 60-degree temperatures certainly didn't help, either. As has happened in several other Alpine events, the sun went to work and left an uneven consistency from an aggressive top to a slower bottom. That has been a familiar gripe amongst the failures of these games, and continued to raise the question about having a Winter Games in such a warm climate.
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Gisin, who was considered a medal contender Saturday, was particularly upset with the warming conditions.
"The bottom [of the course], there was no grip because the snow is going away," she said.
The International Ski Federation gave a fairly clear signal of where it stood after Saturday's chaos, moving the men's super-G start up one hour on Sunday. The hope is the extra hour will buy some consistency that hasn't always been afforded between top and bottom of the starting order. It's the second time that an Alpine race has been moved up in these Games.
Click on the image below for more photos of the mayhem during the women's super-G: