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Normally, starting near top of the pack in any ski race works to the competitors' advantage as they get they best snow, before it gets chewed up. At the alpine centre of the Sochi Olympics, drawing a early start number has been especially important, because the high temperature is making the snow mushy.
But at Saturday's super-G race, starting early proved was no advantage at all. Seven of the first eight starters crashed or missed gates, most of them on the top part of the course. The medal winners all started later, after watching the destruction of the early starters. They skied aggressively but took precautions, a strategy that worked.
The winner was Austria's Anna Fenniger, 24, who had started 18th under the blazing sun at the Rosa Khutor alpine centre. Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who won gold in the super combined race earlier in the week, took silver and Nicole Hosp of Austria won bronze.
"We saw on the TV how the first seven out of eight starters went out, so I was kind of nervous because I knew it would be really challenging," said Hoefl-Riesch, who won two golds in the 2010 Vancouver Games and gold in the super combined race earlier this week. "I was close to stopping in the middle section. If I had been one meter further out, I would have stopped."
The three Canadian competitors had unpleasant runs. Two of them – Marie-Michel Gagnon and Larisa Kurkiw – both missed gates on the highly technical course. Marie-Pier Prefontaine finished 20th among 49 competitors who entered.
Gagnon had dislocated her shoulder in Monday's super combined race but said she suffered no pain in today's race. She intends to compete in the two Olympic slalom events. Kurkiw, who is not a slalom racer, is leaving Sochi and returning to the world cup circuit.
Gagnon, who started fifth, said "It was hard to get information about the course when you start early like that…But for me it was a win just to be in the start after dislocating my shoulder."
The super-G is a relatively new event – it was introduced in the 1988 Calgary games. It's a difficult race, one that fits between a downhill and a giant slalom. The race requires courage because turns are taken extremely high speeds. American superstar Lindsey Vonn, who did not maker it to the Sochi Olympics because of a knee injury, made her name in the super-G, with 20 world cup victories in the event.
Super-G competitors find the race particularly challenging because they are leaps into the unknown; unlike the downhill, there is no pre-race training run, though a course "inspection" is allowed. That can put the early competitors at a disadvantage. Their followers learn from the leaders' mistakes.
The super-G course at Sochi was particularly difficult -- some of the falls were spectacular -- especially at the top. "I think we all underestimated the track after inspection and thought there would be less problems," said Switzerland's Fabienne Suter, who finished seventh. "It's more difficult with soft snow."
The American skiers had a lousy day. Julia Mancuso, the top U.S. skier in the absence of Vonn, finished 8th, after winning bronze in the super combined. Leanne Smith finished 18th and two countrywomen failed to make it down the hill.
The men's super-G will be raced on Sunday. Race organizers moved the event to 10am local time – an hour earlier – for fear that warmer temperature in the late morning would damage the course.