Only two skiers ever have won three gold medals in a world championship - Toni Sailer and Erika Hess - and only a handful have won two - such notables as Jean-Claude Killy, Gustavo Thoeni, Annemarie Moser-Proell, Ingemar Stenmark and Pirmin Zurbriggen.
Now add the unlikely name of Rudolf Nierlich to that select group.The young Austrian, just three days after taking an unexpected gold medal in the men's giant slalom, added the slalom title Sunday in the concluding event of the World Alpine Ski Championships.
Withstanding the subtle terrors of two icy slalom runs that felled such stalwarts as Alberto Tomba, Zurbriggen and Stenmark, Nierlich raced to a winning margin of 44-hundredths of a second over West German Armin Bittner. Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli was third.
"Before coming to Vail, I was hoping to get a medal," Nierlich, 22, said. "But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would leave Colorado with two gold medals in my pocket."
Neither did anyone else.
Little known outside the World Cup circuit, Nierlich was rarely mentioned among prerace favorites in either the slalom or giant slalom. Girardelli, Zurbriggen, Tomba and Swiss ace Vreni Schneider were those most prominently tabbed as double-gold hopefuls. Yet none managed Nierlich's feat.
Girardelli left with a gold and a bronze, Zurbriggen with a silver and a bronze, Schneider with a gold and two silvers, while the bombastic Tomba was shut out.
Nierlich overtook first-run slalom leader Bittner with a quick second run down a course with extremely tight gate placements.
Nierlich had an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 2.85 seconds, compared to Bittner's 2:03.29. Girardelli, third after the first run, maintained his position and won the bronze medal in 2:03.65.
Paul Accola of Switzerland was fourth in 2:03.80 and Jonas Nilsson of Sweden placed fifth in 2:03.87.
The treacherous second course felled seven of the first 10 skiers out of the gate, including Stenmark. The tamer first run, meanwhile, knocked out five skiers from the first seed, including Tomba and Zurbriggen.
Tomba, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Italy who was making his final bid for a medal in the championships, straddled a gate about 10 seconds from the finish and fell face-first. Zurbriggen, the Swiss star, fell just five seconds into his run.
Defending world slalom champion Frank Woerndl of West Germany, Austria's Bernhard Gstrein and top American hope Felix McGrath all missed gates.