You can learn something about a man's work from the manner in which he spends his vacation. The beach. The woods. The couch. In the heart of the central Austrian summer, when Fritz Strobl finds himself briefly turned loose from his job as a downhill racer on the Austrian ski team, he's a policeman in the town of Hallein (pop. 18,500), near Salzburg. "I find it relaxing," says Strobl. "I am cut off from the pressure of ski racing." The beach. The woods. The couch. The patrol car. Any vocation that sends a man into law enforcement for relaxation isn't for the weak.
On Sunday, Strobl, 29, brought resolution to the mighty Austrian downhill team's quadrennial Olympic melodrama by winning a gold medal on Snowbasin's wicked Grizzly course. His performance elevated his solid career, touched off a rollicking celebration among Austrian fans who had traveled 7,000 miles to the northern Wasatch Range and, most of all, wrote a merciful ending to a proud team's tumultuous season, which began with a horrific summertime motorcycle crash and ended with the country's first Olympic downhill victory since 1992. If Strobl was not the likeliest or most famous Austrian downhill gold medalist (in truth, he was barely the likeliest Strobl), he was the most pragmatic. "Races aren't won by reputation," he had said during Hahnenkamm weekend at Kitzb�hel in late January. "They are won by the fastest racer."
For the previous four years the fastest racer in Austria, the world and, some would say, in history, had been Hermann Maier, the hell-bent Herminator, who crashed the World Cup party late in 1997, won 41 races in five seasons and raised the ante on fearlessness. He won two gold medals at the Nagano Olympics (giant slalom and Super G) but is better remembered for his spectacular, flying crash in the downhill. At Salt Lake City, Maier, 29, was expected to command the skiing stage like no racer since Jean-Claude Killy nearly a quarter-century ago.
At the end of August, however, he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg—nearly requiring amputation—when a car struck his motorcycle. At Kitzb�hel, where his presence at the races was palpable, from T-shirts bearing pictures of his Nagano crash to banners imploring him to return, Maier announced he was abandoning his plans to compete in these Olympics.
Yet with Austrian ski racers, as with Kenyan steeplechasers, another one is always waiting. In this case, Stephan Eberharter, 32, jumped in and won nine World Cup races this season, including five of eight downhills. In public, Eberharter was gracious about his success. Privately, he seethed at having been a forgotten man during Maier's rise, despite having won six World Cup races and finishing second 13 times in the 1998 through 2001 seasons. In Maier's absence, he found a zone. "I'm not even trying," he said in January. "Everything is flowing so smoothly, everything is working so well."
Around him, the Austrians took more body blows. Hannes Trinkl, 34, the 2001 downhill world champion, suffered a fractured skull and a severe concussion in a November crash. Josef (Pepi) Strobl (no relation to but nearly as good as Fritz) blew out his knee in training. "We have good racers who are watching on television," Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said in Salt Lake City.
Against this backdrop the Austrian coaches named Eberharter and Fritz Strobl to their Olympic downhill team and declared that because each country is allowed only as many as four starters in Olympic races, the other two entrants would be decided by times in the final training run, the day before the downhill. It was the same bloody tactic that the Austrians had used in Nagano. This time, a recovered Trinkl was among five skiers bounced, along with Andreas Schifferer, 27, a seven-time World Cup downhill winner. "It's beautiful that each country gets four skiers," said Schifferer after the final training run, "but it's hard for the individual from a country like Austria, which has many good skiers [eight of the top 12 in the World Cup downhill rankings]."
Christian Greber and Christoph Gruber survived the ski-off, but Greber would finish sixth and Gruber 20th. "Tired in the legs today," said Greber after the final. "A little bit tired in the brain, too."
On Sunday, a day from central casting in the Utah mountains—light winds, temperatures in the 20s and a breathtaking dome of blue sky—Eberharter took the lead as the ninth skier down the mountain, even though his run wasn't perfect. The Grizzly is a short run (less than 1:40 compared with 1:55 at Kitzb�hel) and gnarly, with a succession of sidehills and turns that demands a smooth ride on the skis and extracts a huge price for errors. Strobl, who chose number 10 in the draw so that he could follow Eberharter (the top 15 skiers in the World Cup standings select positions in order of their rank; Eberharter is No. 1, Strobl No. 2), raced clean from top to bottom and bumped Eberharter by .28 of a second. Three skiers later, Norwegian workhorse Lasse Kjus, 31, took over the silver spot, the same medal he had won in Nagano.
No skier paid a higher price for mistakes than U.S. hope Daron Rahlves, the 2001 world champion in Super G and winner of two World Cup downhills. It had been a turbulent week for Rahlves; a solid third-place in the first training run last Thursday brought with it heavy hype, and that unhinged him slightly. "I didn't expect to get hounded quite like that," he said. While tinkering with equipment on the last training run, he skied terribly. Trying to cleanse that experience from his body and reconnect with the snow, Rahlves spent Saturday afternoon skiing day-old powder in Snowbasin's lush back bowls.