ST. MORITZ, Switzerland — With a line-up like today’s, it’s easy to make the mistake of predicting the podium.
It was the men’s giant slalom in the World Alpine Ski Championships at St. Moritz, and most of the sport’s biggest names were there: France’s Alexis Pinturault, who grabbed third in the GS for the World Championships in Vail-Beaver Creek in 2015; Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, who has placed in top five in nine of the last 16 GS races; Germany’s Felix Neureuther, who has placed in the top 10 in all but three of the same races. And, of course, Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, who has medaled in no fewer than 14 of the last 16 GS races he’s run.
But every once in a while, there’s a dark horse. Hirscher took the victory, because he’s unstoppable right now. But there was a second Austrian on the podium, someone no one could have predicted, and no one did.
Roland Leitinger, a fresh-faced 25-year-old who, before today, had a fairly potted GS record: His top finish was in sixth place at Sölden in October 2015, followed by 10th at Beaver Creek that December. Since then, he hadn’t cracked the top 10 once, and for every couple of races he finished he’d put up a DNF (which is usually for crashing or missing a gate) or a DSQ (which is often for something like straddling a gate and not realizing it).
When Leitinger came down the course for his second, podium-clinching run, the crowd was quiet: not just because he wasn’t a Swiss, but because he wasn’t even well-known enough to be anticipated as someone who might factor in the finish. When it was all over, and it was clear he’d taken second place — across the two runs, just .25 of a second behind Hirscher — fans looked at each other with bemused, well-I-guess-that’s-ski-racing looks on their faces.
Nobody seemed to know who this guy was. Of course, that might be exactly why he cruised onto the podium.
There was “no pressure at all for me,” Leitinger said. “I didn’t get the pressure from outside. Nobody expected something from me.”
Not even the people who are typically optimistic to the point of irrationality: His parents, interviewed after his performance, were in shock.
Of course, every racer is different. Some skiers perform especially well with the pressure of big events. Like Julia Mancuso, the U.S. downhill racer who, from 2009 through 2010, made the podium on the World Cup circuit exactly once, but then pulled off two silver medals at the 2010 Olympics. And others, like Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin, are famously unflappable: they perform consistently at World Cup events, Olympics and Championships alike.
But for other racers, the bigger the crowd and the more pressure, the more difficult it is to focus. Concentrate. Simultaneously relax – and rev up.
That can be especially tricky for younger athletes, some of whom might find the crowds as events like the Championships as intimidating as they are invigorating. So for some racers, being the dark horse can be one of the best ways to ride to the podium.
Of course, confidence can help as much as realistic expectation. “I knew if I could do a really good race, I could make it to the top 10,” Leitinger said after his run. “And I didn’t make any mistakes in two runs. So now I’m here for the silver medal.”
One of the other benefits of not having won something like this before? The joy.
“It was an amazing second run for me,” Leitinger said, grinning. “I was screaming so loud, oh my God. To think about it now – it was just amazing.”