Although it rarely snows in the Yanqing Olympic ski area, the vegetation is quite passable. You can already guess from the TV pictures that the slopes are in the middle of a nature reserve, the borders of which the authorities just flagged out a few years ago in order to plant the said Olympic routes in this area.
Jürgen Graller, the head coach of the German ski racers, could at least not complain about a lack of selection when the frustration was to be overcome on Tuesday: Graller likes to take a detour through a piece of forest if the outcome of an alpine race doesn’t quite match his hopes. “It’s better to think twice, go into the woods and yell at a tree,” he once said, “and then it’s back to normal.”
So on Tuesday it was that time again: Thundering curses in the bright pine grove of Yanqing, in any case tears at the finish after Kira Weidle had arrived there in fourth place. Fourth place again – in the previous week the same result was left for Lena Dürr, “with the best slalom of her life”, as the German alpine director Wolfgang Maier later said. That’s also why, Weidle said on Tuesday, “a piece of me went along for Lena”.
But the emotional start-up aid wasn’t enough to eliminate those 14 hundredths of a second that separated Weidle from the podium after one and a half minutes’ driving time. “Just incredible,” said the 25-year-old, steaming with anger. The only thing that helped was another reach into Graller’s toolbox to contain frustration. “Maybe,” said Weidle, “the mountain has to endure a scream today.”
Weidle has always been ahead of her sport’s schedule. At the age of eight, she formulated her dream of becoming a ski racer, at 19 she made her debut on the downhill, and a year ago the provisional crowning glory at the World Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo: silver in the supreme discipline. One sometimes forgets that Weidle will only be 26 years old in the coming week, as a podium and victory driver she is in a sense in the final stages of her training. That made the undertaking in Beijing all the more demanding, even if Weidle has never been thrown off balance by difficult things.
And she had all the ingredients together now: the “very high” expectations at the beginning of the season, which initially only resulted in seventh and tenth places. A mental turning maneuver shortly thereafter, which drew the focus to the essentials: not chaining your thoughts to results and the future, but to fast skiing in the now. Second place in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee in January, almost her first World Cup victory.
High hopes for Beijing, as the only German starter in Super-G and downhill, as she has been going through the winter for some time. But that, Graller had recently said, is now being interpreted as an opportunity. “Other nations now have four instead of ten starters,” he said with a view to the Olympic races, “we are used to this one-woman show. Weidle is now “quite hardy and focused.”
And that’s how she drove on Tuesday, a bit wobbly only through the first corners, but before entering the steep slope she still set the third fastest intermediate time. And even more important: she was still third at the exit, the speed was right. And now there was only one long gliding passage, which she had always liked. At least the time of Sofia Goggia, the second-placed Italian, was still within reach. And then?
14 hundredths to bronze. A twitch, maybe not even that. Throwing on the microscope again, looking for mistakes that seem so tiny compared to the emotional gulf that separates third place from the rest. It wasn’t due to the last gliding passage, said Weidle, more to the upper part, “I certainly didn’t get it well today”.
It’s difficult, “always descending perfectly, you take on a lot, especially when things have already gone well in training”. She said: with two second places. And so, in the end, Weidle learned a lesson in the school of narrow failure: when it counts, the others unleash their full potential. Weidle is getting better and better at this increase, but what does it matter when the last step Olympia not succeed yet?
Not so little, Weidle thought: “I’m absolutely there. I think other athletes had bet on me today when it came to the medal.” That is also a nice feeling. It was no longer the disappointed athlete who spoke in the now, but the athlete who knows that the best time is still ahead of her, and another Olympic cycle, at least that had already hoped for in the German Ski Association, have melted away.
At the front, nerves were no less vibrating on Tuesday. Sofia Goggia was already on the way to writing one of the most amazing stories of these games: three weeks after her fall in Cortina, where she had been thrown through like a load of laundry in the full wash cycle, she was now rowing down the Olympic slope as usual, with a torn cruciate ligament and damaged fibula. Idiocy? Heroism?
In any case, it was fast, Goggia topped the time of her teammate Nadia Delago, who had never been on a downhill podium in the World Cup, by almost half a second. The 29-year-old yelled a long “Siiiiiiiiii” in the cold, kissed the camera – and stomped away for a moment like a child who had just been put under house arrest for two weeks when the Swiss Corinne Suter was even faster. Hard times for all trees and mountains in Yanqing.