KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid has shocked the world of alpine skiing yet again.
Four years after taking a surprise bronze medal in super-giant slalom at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the 28-year-old from Lake Placid, who's never found the World Cup podium outside of the Olympic games, won a silver medal in today's super-G at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
Weibrecht finished in 1:18.44, just three-tenths of a second out of the gold medal position, which was claimed by Norway's Kjetil Jansrud in 1:18.14. Weibrecht pushed the man considered the U.S.'s greatest alpine skier, New Hampshire's Bode Miller, into a tie for the bronze with Canada's Jan Hudec. Both Miller and Hudec were clocked at 1:18.67.
Lake Placid's Andrew Weibrecht waves to the crowd during the flower ceremony for the men's super giant slalom. Weibrecht won the silver medal in the event, held at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center. (Photo - Chris Knight)
The finish was a flip-flop of Weibrecht's and Miller's results at the Vancouver games, when it was Miller who won the silver and Weibrecht the bronze in super-G.
"This is probably the most emotional day of ski racing I've ever had," said Weibrecht, who's battled through injuries, illness and inconsistency over the last four years. "All the issues and troubles that I've had, to be able to have a really strong result like this, it reminds me of all the work I did to come back, that it's all worth it and it all makes sense."
As he talked near the finish line, the soft-spoken Weibrecht was surrounded by a horde of reporters and news media from all across the country and around the world.
"This is the most shocking day in my career as a ski writer at an alpine event in seven Winter Olympics," said veteran ski racing journalist John Meyer of the Denver Post. "He's never been on a World Cup podium, and now to have two medals at super-G at the Olympics, it's just, it's what makes ski racing so great and so much fun that you can see that happen."
In a Facebook post before the Olympics, Weibrecht called his bronze medal run four years ago at the Whistler Creekside Resort his "last great race." One month after those games, he crashed and tore the rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder. He also tore the anterior ligaments in his left ankle. During the 2011 World Cup season, Weibrecht tore the labrum in his left shoulder. Three days after coming back from that injury, he tore three ligaments in his right ankle. He's had four surgeries in four years.
"The last four years have been really tough because everything's been so disrupted and I haven't had any continuity in my training," Weibrecht said.
His best result since the Vancouver games came in December 2011, when he took 10th place at a World Cup super-G at Beaver Creek, Colo. At one point he was moved from the "A" to the "B" team and had to pay for some of his travel expenses.
"There's been times where I've had to evaluate whether this is what I want to do, as recently as yesterday," Weibrecht said. "There's only so many times you can get kicked before you really start to feel it. I try not to focus on results, but I needed a result to remind me more than anything that I'm capable of this and that I belong here."
Whether Weibrecht would even get the chance to compete in another Olympics was in question right up until the day in January when the men's alpine team was announced. He only competed in four super-G races before these games, finishing 34th, 20th, 21st and 23rd.
"I could see from the coaches' perspective how they could consider putting a different guy in," Weibrecht said, "but I think that, to some extent, my coaches have always believed in me, and I'm really lucky in that respect."
"It was tough when the quota spots did get thin there for a while," said U.S. alpine team head coach Sasha Rearick. "We were nervous if we were going to be able to take him, but as the depth of our team brought more quota spots into us, it was evident we were going to bring him."
Weibrecht spent two weeks before the games training in Austria with fellow alpine racer Ted Ligety, who was 14th in today's race. Rearick said that session was a big confidence booster for Weibrecht.
"When they were (in Austria), Weibrecht told me, 'Training (giant slalom) with Ted just showed me how much I can push and how deep and how clean I've got to be,'" Rearick said. "And he also was beating Ted in super-G. He realized where he was beating Ted was coming onto the flats. Every time he came off a steep pitch, Weibrecht was able to pull more speed."
Weibrecht didn't arrive in Sochi until four days after the opening ceremonies. In his first event, he placed 20th in the downhill portion of the men's super combined but crashed during the slalom run and didn't finish the race.
On Saturday, race officials pushed back the start of today's super-G by an hour to 10 a.m. to give the racers a harder surface after days of warm temperatures and sunshine. Weibrecht drew a late starting position, 29th, which isn't what he wanted.
"I wasn't that pleased with my start number, but I made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to let that affect the way I raced or my mood or my outlook," Weibrecht said. "Today was about coming out and putting a solid run that I could be proud of down."
After blasting out of the starting gate, Weibrecht was ahead of Jansrud's gold-medal pace by three-tenths of a second at the first split. When the scoreboard showed he was also ahead at the second and third splits, the crowd at the finish line grew louder and louder. Weibrecht lost a little bit of time on the last portion of the course, but he still skied hard and fast enough to make the podium.
"I came through the finish, and I knew that I skied well," he said. "I knew that I had a really good run."
As he crossed the finish line, Weibrecht looked up at the scoreboard and saw he was in second place. Overcome with emotion, he bent over and put both hands on his head, staying in that position for several seconds. The crowd cheered loudly and Weibrecht waved in appreciation. Skiing over to the finish area, he was bear-hugged by Miller, Ligety and his other teammates and coaches.
Weibrecht's late start position actually worked to his benefit, according to Rearick. Each American skier who raced before him fed information about the hill back up to the start gate, Rearick explained.
"Ted (Ligety) threw down an amazing run and gave up a great course report to Bode (Miller)," Rearick said. "Where Ted had made a mistake, Bode skied that great. Bode made another little mistake that cost him on the bottom, radioed that up to Andrew, and Andrew put it all together by just going for it."
Miller said Weibrecht skied the early part of the super-G run better than anyone, even himself.
"He has the ability to get on the front of the skis so aggressively at the top of the turn," Miller said. "Once you find that kind of rhythm, I'm sure he knew he was ripping at that point. He skied a very smart and tactically perfect race after that."
Had Weibrecht skied the same run from an earlier start position, there's no doubt he would have won gold, Miller said.
"I think the course was skiing, I would guess, seven-tenths (of a second) slower when he ran than when the race started," Miller said. "To ski through the toughest conditions of anyone in the top 30 and come down second, it's incredible. He out-skied everyone today."
Sandy Caligiore of Lake Placid, the press officer for USA Luge, was watching from the mix zone, where the athletes and the press can mingle.
"That was a flawless run," he said. "Right off the bat, he hit that first turn beautifully and carried the speed down. Honestly, I thought he had the race won. That was unbelievable.
"I guess some people are made for the Olympics," Caligiore added.