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TORINO: Alpine: Raich, the Blitz from Plitz, quietly reaches the top


TORINO: Alpine: Raich, the Blitz from Plitz, quietly reaches the top{mosimage}SESTRIERE, Italy – He can safely publish his home address and phone number on his Web site, his main sponsor is an insurance company and his nickname – the Blitz from Pitz – sounds far more impressive than the actual levels of excitement he elicits on the World Cup circuit.

Despite a pair of World Championships gold medals, three World Cup discipline crystal globes and the promise of more, Benjamin Raich remains one of those racers destined never to be a Bode Miller or a Hermann Maier.

”Because I am not American, and I did not crash in Nagano,” explains Raich, the overall World Cup standings leader.

His low-key persona and stolid consistency have long placed him in the shadows of the circuit’s flashier personalities, yet the same qualities have allowed the 27-year-old Raich to silently climb to the top.

While last winter’s World Championships headlines were dominated by Miller’s superb performance in the speed events, his one-ski antics in the combined and his flops in the technical disciplines, Raich quietly amassed medals in four of the five individual events.

He took gold in the slalom and combined, silver in the giant slalom and bronze in the super G.

Raich was runner-up to Miller in last season’s overall World Cup standings, and has finished in the top 10 every year since 1999.

At the Torino Olympics, Raich could medal in all five events if he can secure the last downhill and super G berths on the deep Austrian squad. Reigning Olympic downhill champion Fritz Strobl, World Cup champion Michael Walchhofer and Maier have locked up three places in those disciplines. Klaus Kroell, Andreas Buder and Raich are vying for the last spot.

Raich ”goes out there and skis a lot of races. He’s really calculating. He’s a solid skier and has great technique,” said Daron Rahlves, who has learned to live in Miller’s shadow despite being the most successful U.S. men’s speed skier in history.

”He’s a nice guy. He sits back and he skis. He doesn’t make a lot of controversy or get all hyped up – he’s more of a true athlete instead of a showman.”

Appropriately, even one of Raich’s two bronze medals at the 2002 Olympics were awarded to him in near-obscurity. He had crossed fourth in the slalom at Salt Lake but improved one position when Britain’s Alain Baxter was stripped of his third placing after testing positive for a banned stimulant.

At the time, Raich refused to accept the medal. But under intense pressure from his national federation, he reluctantly received it at a small ceremony in Austria almost 10 months later.

Raich doesn’t crave attention, but says he wouldn’t mind a bit more exposure, either. He’s got some tough acts to follow. According to a poll taken by the national bank that sponsors Maier, 97 percent of Austrians have heard of the double Olympic champion. In that poll, Maier was more widely known than the country’s leading politician.

Maier has launched a ”Herminator” granola bar, a video game, has written a book and he made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1998 after his famous crash at the Nagano Olympics.

A movie is currently in the works about his comeback from the 2001 motorcycle crash that nearly killed him.

Miller, who has several agents, also wrote a book and has a movie about him, and has his own radio talk show. He launched his ”joinbode.com” Web site after signing a mammoth deal with Nike and made the covers of Time and Newsweek.

And he’s hogged the spotlight all season.

In October, Miller infuriated skiing officials by calling for liberalized drug testing. Then he made headlines by saying in a ”60 Minutes” interview: ”If you ever tried to ski when you’re wasted, it’s not easy,” and suggested in Rolling Stone Magazine that Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds took performance-enhancing drugs.

His late-night habits, irreverence and ‘Bode-knows-best’ attitude with coaches makes Miller popular in Europe.

And his all-or-nothing style – Miller comes down the slope in an unleashed way, with his upper body seemingly completely disassociated from his lower half – thrills the crowds.

The cherub-faced Raich parties little, stirs no trouble and wanders his family’s farm forests in his off time. His skiing technique is flawless and he finished every race he entered in the 2004-05 season.

Instead of an agent, Raich gets his sister and mother to deal with fan mail he receives from mostly adolescent girls.

”AUTOGRAPHS: Send to my address a marked and sufficiently stamped envelope and I send to you immediately an autograph,” says a note at the bottom of his Web page.

Even there, Raich shares the attention. His Web site has a section about sister and former skier Carina, as well as girlfriend Marlies Schild – the winner of three World Cup slaloms this season.

Unlike fellow allrounder Miller, who professes to loathe the media attention, Raich is grateful for any attention he can attract.

”I heard a lot of things about Bode. I’m not sure that what he is saying is always what he really thinks,” Raich said. ”I want the media attention. I think it’s important for me and the sport. It’s how I live from my job.”

Raich has no books or movie deals, but he did have the bridge he bungee jumps off in Pitztal named after him.

”He’s not the same person as Miller or Maier, sure, but he makes his own way,” Walchhofer said. ”I think it’s not so important to talk always. But if he says something, people will listen more carefully.”

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