Eighteen-year-old Rokas Zaveckas of Vilnius would wear bib number 88 after successfully completing the qualification race yesterday in Vail. The sun hadn’t come up over the mountains when he boarded the lift to the top of the course.
A total of 160 men from 68 countries were entered in this men’s giant slalom race. The top fifty racers on the entry list were automatically qualified, while 110 others had to qualify in a race held on Thursday in Vail. The GS final start list contained 100 skiers.
The first run claimed several of the big names and race favourites. With such a late start number, Zaveckas had time to see how the world’s best would handle the course. The Screech Owl jump proved to be the game changer, with many early starters coming into the turn with more speed and less direction than they thought. Benjamin Raich of Austria wearing bib number one was the first to fall victim to this corner. “I was watching the first top 30 and I learned from their mistakes—I’m on the finish!” said Zaveckas.
“The snow conditions being so good today and the course being in good shape I think lends itself to a tight race,” said American giant slalom star Ted Ligety. “Of course I’d like to be winning by a second, but I’ll take where I am.” Ligety was in fifth place going into the second run.
“It was not really a bad run, but I knew already in the middle of the course that I’m missing some speed,” said Latvija’s Kristaps Zvejnieks. “I knew I could be faster, but that was my own mistake because the course was awesome. I just need more training and more feeling on the GS skis.”
Slovenija’s Klemen Kosi, who won the qualification race said today’s course was much more difficult. “The course setting was very difficult on the World Championship, but my run was also worse than yesterday,” said Kosi. “I qualified as the winner of the lucky losers, but it didn’t help me much. Definitely I’m not as confident after this first run. I have a second run but I don’t think I can expect much from this race.”
Despite the difficulty of the course set and the length of the slope, Zaveckas would not be intimidated. “On the start we’re always thinking, ‘Go fast and go full power.’ Today we said, Už Lietuva, and go!” said Zaveckas’s father and coach Giedrius. “Out of the start, Rokas skied really well.”
Zaveckas skied a solid race from top to bottom, despite having had knee surgery last April. “It was tough, but I had fun so that’s the most important thing,” said Zaveckas. “Giant slalom is still hard for me now after my injury—I still can’t ski like I know I can. Especially in these conditions when you start with huge number, never mind that the course is still okay. When the course is so long, you just push yourself to the finish and try to do your best. But still I would say that Sochi was much harder.”
“In the second run I felt much faster; I could generate much more speed. I feel good because GS is not my main discipline and it’s nice racing on this really hard hill,” said Zvejnieks. “It’s definitely one of the hardest courses I’ve ever raced.”
The atmosphere on this race day was perfect: There was music, cheerleaders wearing American-themed race suits, and a stadium full of welcoming fans who cheered for every racer from first to last. Both Zaveckas and Zvejnieks commented on how nice it has been to meet so many Lithuanians and Latvians since they arrived. “One of the volunteers asked where we were from and we said Lithuania. And she said, ‘Oh! My grandparents are from Lithuania!” said G. Zaveckas.
“The thing that is really sentimental for me is that I’ve met so many Latvians who are living here in America and they are all still speaking in Latvian even though they have been here 20 or 30 years. It’s always nice to meet some Latvians so far from home.”
In the end, Ted Ligety won the race to the delight of home crowd. Austria’s Marcel Hirscher was second and Alexis Pinturault of France was third. Kosi was 33rd, Zvenjieks was 37th and Zaveckas was 65th in the official rankings. (Only the top 60 in the first run competed in the second run.)
Zaveckas is set to ski in the slalom qualification race on Saturday in Vail, while Lithuania’s Ieva Januškevičiūtė will compete in the women’s slalom final at Beaver Creek.