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TORINO: Alpine: Confident Deneriaz was determined to emerge a champion

TORINO: Alpine: Confident Deneriaz was determined to emerge a champion{mosimage}SESTRIERE, Italy — It sounded sort of cocky Saturday afternoon, but the prediction turned out to be perfect a day later after Antoine Deneriaz became the sixth Frenchman to clinch the gold medal at the Olympic downhill, after Henri Oreiller (St. Moritz 1948), Jean Vuarnet (Squaw Valley 1960), Jean Claude Killy (Grenoble 1968), Patrick Oertlieb (Albertville 1992 he skied for Austria in Val d’Isère but he still had a French passport that year) and Jean Luc Cretier (Nagano 1998).

‘I will avenge you and I’ll order some champagne for tomorrow evening’ the 29-year-old Deneriaz told Dakar Rally winner Luc Alphand at the finish line after clocking the fastest training time. ‘We’ll have a great party, I promise you’ he added with a big smile.

Deneriaz, a two-time winner at Val Gardena in 2002 and 2003, was aware that the 1997 World Cup overall champion crashed on the same course while fighting for gold at the FIS World Championships. ‘I’ll make it through, don’t worry, I like this course a lot, I consider it as the little sister of the Saslong run from Val Gardena.’

Deneriaz has been beaming since Thursday’s first training run and he kept on increasing his confidence and his determination day after day. ‘It’s a good downhill for me, I’m a great glider and I know what I have to do to win this thing’ he said to NBC analyst Todd Brooker and [Patrick Lang] after Friday’s training run. ‘It’s a very good course for tall skiers because they can better absorb the ruts and the bumps.’

The next day, he was not too happy to have clocked the fastest time in the last practise run, which forced him to start in 30th position on Sunday, a long time after favorites such as Fritz Strobl and Michael Walchhofer.

But it took him only a few minutes to find back his humour and his optimism.

‘I won my second consecutive downhill at Val Gardena a few years ago with bib number 30, so I know all about being the last favorite at the start’ he told us. ‘I was aiming for a start number between 10 and 15, but if I was so fast today with bib 23, I can also ski fast in starting in 30th position if the conditions remain the same.’

Friends of Deneriaz were not too surprised by his confidence and his conviction. ‘He is a quiet and modest guy who is not opening his mouth for nothing’ said a reporter from the Dauphine Libéré on Saturday night. ‘When he speaks that way, it means that he is really strong in his mind and that he has no doubts about his chances of winning. He was extremely relaxed and pleased by his form coming here.’

Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s demanding super G was apparently the turning point for Deneriaz, who has just two World Cup top 10s this season, in Val Gardena (seventh ) and Kitzbuehel (ninth). ‘My 16th place there, only a few tenths away from the podium, opened me a new horizon’ he explained. ‘I was very pleased to do so well on that course, it was a crucial and very positive sign for me. Then I skied really well at Chamonix and at that moment, I felt ready for the Games.’

Ironically, it was also in Chamonix, a year ago, that he started to focus on the Olympics after injuring himself during training. ‘Well I guess I’m a true downhiller now’ he said with a grin to his doctor when he was told that he just tore ligaments at his knee during that crash. “I’ll not be world champion at Bormio in February but Olympic champion in Sestriere.’

‘I often tell these kinds of jokes’ he said at the postrace press conference. ‘But it’s true that I looked at this race as my next major goal. My rehab was painful, I suffered a lot but I kept working out hard in order to get back in shape in time for this race. It made me tougher and more experienced too.

“I was so glad to get back on my racing skis at Lake Louise that I clocked the fastest time in the first training run. I was 12th in the race, which was nice, but I couldn’t improve my level as fast as I wanted afterwards. I was pretty depressed in January after finishing a poor 35th at Wengen, but I didn’t want to give up, I hung in there and kept believing in my chances. Last week, I told my father that I’ll have a great day here.

“I also want to thank my serviceman Pascal [Lemoine], who again did such a great job on my skis. I trust him totally, I knew that he will prepare true rockets for me today.’

Lemoine is not a full-time employee of Atomic. He works for the French wax company Vola, but he expertly prepared Deneriaz’ old pair of Atomic skis from his 2003 victory at Val Gardena. The skis had to be repaired because the bases were “burned” when Deneriaz skied on icy courses.

‘The last days here were great, I had many friends coming here and helping me to relax, it was fun,” Deneriaz said. “They helped me to be ready for that race. It’s a great day for my small village. I guess they will have a long night now.’

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