In the final race of his career, Aksel Lund Svindal made sure his last downhill was a knee-knocking thriller.
Only 0.02 seconds separated the Olympic downhill champion from his teammate Kjetil Jansrud who took gold, crossing the line in 1:19.98 in difficult conditions to win his first world title.
There was a moment during his run, with the snow falling and fog reducing visibility, that Svindal nipped ahead of race leader Jansrud and looked on course for a third world downhill title, but a wobble in the middle section set him back and the 36-year-old had to settle for silver, just as Jansrud did when Svindal took Olympic gold last year.
Arms aloft, the Norwegian, the sentimental favorite, tilted his head back and looked up to the white sky and savored the applause near the finish line for one last time. Norwegian flags popped up like toast with his compatriots having traveled to the Swedish resort of Are in numbers to show their appreciation to one of their country’s biggest sports stars.
“It’s a close race but it’s a great race. I’m very happy with this,” Svindal told reporters afterwards, admitting he had felt nervous in the build-up to his final race.
“It was a bit of extra pressure. I usually think this is one out of many chances and if I don’t get this one I get the next one. This was the last one so that strategy didn’t work.”
A downhill great
After a 17-year career which has included four Olympic medals and the overall World Cup title in 2007 and 2009, Svindal retires as one of the greats of the devil-may-care downhill event.
His silver in Sweden also means he joins Kjetil Andre Aamodt (seven) and Marc Girardelli (six) as the only skiers to have won medals at six world championships.
But competing in such an demanding event has also taken its toll on the Norwegian’s body.
He tore both his ACL and meniscus in a fall in 2016 and, though he did return last year to become the oldest skier to win Olympic gold with victory in the downhill at Pyeongchang, he has not been able to train as he would have wished these last few years.
The race in Are had been delayed by an hour due to fog but Jansrud — sixth out of the gates — raced the conditions perfectly, setting a time no-one could beat, with Svindal second and Austria’s Vincent Kriechmayr (+0.33) in third.
Beat Feuz, aiming to become the first man to successfully defend the downhill title since fellow Swiss Bernhard Russi won in 1970 and 1972, was fourth, +0.44 behind Kjetil.
Svindal said he was happy that the race eventually got underway, even if the course had to be shortened.
“I have to say I have been kind of waiting for this moment the last couple of weeks so I was nervous,” he said. “I didn’t want to push this race [to] any more days because it was building up each day. I definitely wanted to race today.
“I was quite positive we’d have a race even though the conditions were challenging. At least the conditions are fairly equal to everyone, if not perfect.”
Norwegian royalty watching on
Though Svindal no doubt would have preferred to have ended his career with a victory which would have made him the first man to win the downhill world title three times, the Olympic champion nevertheless merrily smiled with his friend and teammate Jansrud as the pair waited near the finish line for confirmation of their placings. The pair even took selfies before a Norwegian one-two was confirmed.
Norwegian fans boisterously cheered every time the pair appeared on the big screen, while Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway were also watching on as Svindal’s racing career came to a conclusion on the course where he had won his first world title,
Having stood on a podium for the final time, teammates lifted Svindal onto their shoulders and the crowd serenaded him but, for Svindal, there were no regrets.
“It’s been a long journey and a great journey,” he said.
“I’m thankful and happy. It’s not that I’m forced to retire. I weighed all the factors together and I think it’s a good choice and I’m still comfortable with it. Everything has it’s time and it’s time to kick back and enjoy this from the spectators’ side of it.”
Mikaela Shiffrin paid tribute to Svindal on social media. “What a career,” the American, the two-time Olympic champion who took gold in Tuesday’s super-G in Are, tweeted, while newly-crowned world champion Jansrud said the day ought to be a celebration of his friend’s achievements.
Christian Mitter, head coach of the Norwegian men’s ski team, told CNN Sport that the race was a “perfect end to a great career,” saying that Svindal had passed the downhill mantle to his teammate.
“I would say it’s almost a perfect end because he gives on the heritage to Kjetil,” he said.
“It’s been a pleasure, a real honor. I will tell my daughter one day that I coached this guy.”