Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, the defending world champion in slalom, wearing bib number one laid down a time that would stand through 100 racers to start. Only 57 would finish. Alexander Khoroshilov of Russia, winner of the last World Cup before these World Championships put himself in a position to take home a medal by skiing into second place.
Kristaps Zvejnieks of Latvia, the top-ranked Baltic skier in the competition, made several small mistakes and finished 35th, while his younger brother Miks did not finish.
Warren Cummings Smith, a American-Estonian who attends Dartmouth College in New Hampshire finished in 44th position. “It was a crazy set, it was very far across the hill and also the snow is very slippery, even compared to what the best guys are used to, and you can see that from the best guys struggling on their way down as well.”
Lithuania’s Rokas Zaveckas skied a clean run to finish 47th, despite being late to the start. “We a little bit miscalculated the start time and we were rushing to the start when there were only three or four skiers before him to go. We just barely managed to get the number, get his skis ready, and he immediately jumped into the course,” said Rokas’s father and coach Giedrius.
“I had enough time just to get my breath back, it was not a problem. Maybe it was even better because I had no time to think about wrong things, I just came, and said, ‘Okay let’s do this,’” said Rokas of his rushed start.
The course was 73 gates, with 70 turns, at or near the maximum allowed by the rules. “It was really tough. The first part was okay, but then on the finish line I couldn’t move my legs. It’s the longest course I think I ever had,” he said.
“All the athletes said it was not fun,” added Giedrius. “One of the French guys said, ‘I’m too old for this!’ It was an icy slope, a steep slope, and there’s not enough oxygen up here. I thought, with Rokas after surgeries, if he could just finish the course it would be very good.”
Rokas’s plan for the second run: Go fast, but smart.
As the very last skiers started the first run, snowflakes began to fall. By the time the racers had finished their inspection of the second run, it had reached near blizzard conditions in Beaver Creek.
The second run course was set several seconds faster than the first, and the snow surface had gotten slicker with the new snow. Many of the skiers struggled and others didn’t finish. Fritz Dopfer and Felix Neureuther of Germany managed to hang on to their positions and were first and second respectively, when France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange, who was fifth after the first run, delivered a near-perfect performance and recorded the fastest time of the second run.
Khoroshilov, Sweden’s Andre Myhere and Mattias Hargin all failed to match Grange’s time. Hirscher, leader in the overall World Cup standings, stunned the crowed when he straddled a gate after the third split.
While Grange was celebrating his win, there were still 27 more racers getting ready to start as the snow continued to fall. Zvejnieks and Cummings Smith skiing with minimal visibility also failed to finish, leaving Zaveckas as the only hope for a Baltic result.
The fog and snow lightened just slightly before Rokas started, and sticking to the plan, he skied a quick but smart run, finishing in 37th. He was bumped to 38th by the next skier down the course from Ukraine.
“It was tough, but I had much more fun this run than the first one. Especially the last part, I felt like I had more power so I could push a little bit, so that was a really good feeling,” said the jubilant skier.
“You can see the gates, you can see everything around, but you cannot see the snow. You can’t see where the bumps are, but there were almost no bumps so it was good.”
“After two operations in two years, I didn’t really think that he could reach such a high result. Of course he skied smart, we came up in advance with a plan. Maybe he could have skied a little bit faster, but there was no reason to increase the chance of not finishing, so that there wouldn’t be a single Baltic country to finish,” said Giedrius.
“It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had actually,” said Rokas, who was smiling and breathless for several minutes after the race. “I’ve had a really tough season so far and this is finally something good.”
As during the women’s slalom on Saturday, there were Lithuanian fans in the crowd again. As he came into the finish, Rokas said he noticed the Lithuanian flags flying. “It’s surprising. If feels good that someone is here, that someone is interested, that someone came here to watch us, to cheer for us.”
Rokas 38th place is the best two-run result in a world championship slalom since Linas Vaitkus’ 34th place result in Sestriere, Italy, in 1997. He flies home to Lithuanian on Monday for a short rest period before two FIS slalom races in Sigulda—these will be the first FIS races ever to be held in Latvia—and traveling to Kvitfjell, Norway, for the World Junior Championships March 5 – 14, followed by the Baltic Cup final in Finland.