Claudia Riegler trains in and skis for New Zealand. This is also the country stamped on her passport and indelibly on her heart. Saturday, it was on her lips, along with her thanks.
When Austria didn't want her, New Zealand took her in. It gave her snow to train on, gave her a ski team jacket and a country to represent.And now, looking back, "It was the very best decision of my life," she said as she reflected back over a ski career that led her to the top step on the podium as the winner of the women's slalom in America's Opening.
After a shaky start on her second run of the day, Riegler bettered some of the world's best slalom racers to win the opening World Cup slalom event.
She recalled that as a junior, some four years ago, she was the best slalom skier in Austria, "but the ski team didn't want me. They wanted women who could ski all events. I don't like the downhill. I'm chicken."
Faced with ending her ski career or going to her mother's birthplace, New Zealand, her parents encouraged her to ski - and she did. Alone. On her own, with no financial or coaching help other than what her parents could provide for her.
It was difficult, she recalled, "But it paid off. Twice, now, they've (Austria Ski Team coaches) asked me to come back. Twice I said no. New Zealand is not only next to my name, it's in my heart. Having them ask, though, gave me confidence knowing that now I'm good enough to be on their team."
Saturday she was not only good enough, she was better. She beat a field of 64 entries.
Ingrid Salvenmoser of Austria, third in the slalom, also has some words for New Zealand and Riegler. They were simply "Thank you."
After a banner year on the Austrian team back in 1991, Salvenmoser fell from favor with bad results and was dropped from the team.
"She called me three days before I was leaving to train in New Zealand. She told me she'd been kicked off the team and asked if she could come and train with me. I said OK. It worked out very well," said Riegler. "I learned from her and her World Cup experience, and she learned from me."
"She helped me and encouraged me to go on with my skiing. I did and here I am," said Salvenmoser.
She was the best of a powerful Austrian team that placed four skiers in the top 15. She is a World Cup veteran with more than 13 years of racing on the circuit.
Fact is, Austria and France took up nearly half of the top 15 finishers on Saturday, showing the skiing dominance held by these two countries. Salvenmoser admitted that being a member of a strong team helped, "because the other skiers push you to do better." Riegler admitted that she prefers, now, to train alone "because that way I get all the attention. And if I do badly, I don't get pushed out. My coach works with me to get better."
Finishing second was Olympic gold medalist Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden. She said she wanted to ski well, but safely on the first run. On her second she took more risks, "but not enough. I didn't go fast enough."
Wiberg skied one place ahead of Riegler on the second run and was holding a good lead. And, it looked for a brief moment she was a sure winner. Riegler came out of the gate with arms flaying and skis bouncing, but then she smoothed out and finished fast.
"I was going to ski just a normal run, but I sat back out of the start and was out of control. I knew I was fast on the flat (bottom section of the course), so I worked hard at the top and smoothed my run," she explained in the finish area.
While the U.S. team struggled, it did much better than two days prior when the entire team was grouped at the last of the pack.
This time Kristina Koznick skied well enough to make the cut (21st), but fell near the mid-section of the course on her second run. Tasha Nelson of the U.S. was 34th after the first run and only missed the cut by two-tenths of a second. Teammate Carrie Sheinberg was 41st. The best U.S. finish on Thursday in the giant slalom was 54th.
Alexandra Shaffer, a student of the Rowmark Ski Academy, skiing a World Cup event for the first time in Utah, started last (64th) but finished in 47th.
Considering Friday's races had to be canceled because of heavy rains, course conditions on Saturday were called "unbelievably good" by several of the racers in the finish area.
Today, the men will take over the course for two days of racing. The men's GS will start at 10 a.m. today, and the men's slalom, postponed until Monday because of the rain on Friday, will also start at 10 a.m.
Among those racing today will be Marc Girardelli. He, too, had a dispute with the Austrian team, left to ski for Luxembourg, alone, and become one of the world's best with 47 World Cup wins and two Olympic medals.