By Andrew Hood
For the first time in nearly a decade, the elite women’s world championship downhill race started with an air of suspense.
Downhill’s unrivaled queen of the piste and eight-time defending elite women’s champion Anne-Caroline Chausson was KO’d with injuries, and suddenly the women’s field was wide open.
“I hate to admit it, but it’s true,” said American Marla Streb. “When we heard that Anne-Caroline had crashed out, then everyone else started thinking we have a chance. That’s how much she’s dominated this sport.”
Chausson dislocated her shoulder and fractured her arm after crashing during her final training ride Saturday morning. Two other big names were missing with injuries as well – last year’s runner-up Sabrina Jonnier was still nursing a lacerated liver from a fall in July, and English threat Tracey Moseley injuring her shoulder during a Maxxis Cup event in Spain last week.
Stepping triumphantly into the void was Vanessa Quinn, who took advantage of a chance of a lifetime to join compatriot Scarlett Hagen – who won the junior women’s downhill title – as the first New Zealanders to win downhill gold medals.
“There’s no way I would have won if Anne-Caroline was here,” admitted Quinn, who posted a time of 3 minutes, 8.04 seconds. “It was really bad luck for her, but someone needed to take away the jersey so I’m really glad it was me.”
With Chausson gone, Quinn was the fastest qualifiers and had the advantage of starting last. Overnight rain greased the technical corners on the Les Gets course, but late morning sun dried it out just in time for the women’s race.
American April Lawyer enjoyed a short run in the “hot seat” after stopping the clock at 3:22.20, but quickly added: “This time won’t stick for the top 10.”
She ended up seventh on the day, with Kathy Pruitt taking sixth at 8.25 seconds slower as four Americans finished in the top 10. Lisa Sher was eighth at 14.37 slower while Streb was the top American at fourth, just out of the medals, at 5.72 slower.
“I crashed at the top, but I was happy I kept it together and rode it out. I usually I freak out after I crash,” Streb said. “This course is hit or miss for me. I like a little more pedaling, but sometimes I can get away with murder on a course like this. I didn’t get away with murder today. It was a finesse course. The gray area from conservative to letting it all hang out was very small.”
With no clear favorites, others seemed hesitant to step up. Swiss rider Marielle Saner slipped on an off-camber corner, foiling her chances to medal. Nolvenn Le Caer, third in 2003 and the junior world champion in 1996, finished a disappointing 10th while Canada’s Danika Schroeter mustered ninth.
The 2001 junior world champion Mio Suemasa glided down the course without major mishap to grab the lead at 3:10.82. Streb, local Morzine-based racer Celine Gros and Saner all failed to top Suemasa’s time, and only Quinn stood between the Japanese and the gold medal.
“With Anne-Caroline gone, you’re suddenly not racing for second anymore. It was kind of intimidating,” said Quinn, whose best career finish was second at Fort William in 2002. “Suddenly, they all had a chance to win. I tried to stay relaxed and not think about it too much.”
Quinn wasn’t about to let the enormity of the opportunity unnerve her. She chipped one second off her qualifying time to edge Suemasa by 2.78 seconds and become the first world champion since 1995 who wasn’t named Chausson.
“I was practicing really fast and I tried to have another run that was like practice, but try to make sure I stayed clean and stayed off my brakes when I could,” said Quinn, who hails from Tauranga on New Zealand’s north island. “Someone needed to take away the jersey so I’m really glad it was me. I’m just stoked.”
2004 elite women’s world championships
Les Gets, France
1. Vanessa Quinn (NZL), 1.3 miles in 3 minutes, 8.04 seconds (24.98mph)
2. Mio Suemasa (Jap), at 2.78
3. Celine Gros (Fra), at 3.98
4. Marla Streb (USA), at 5.72
5. Marielle Saner (Swi), at 6.37
6. Kathy Pruitt (USA), at 8.25
7. April Lawyer (USA), at 14.16
8. Lisa Sher (USA), at 14.37
9. Danika Schroeter (Can), at 14.56
10. Nolvenn Le Caer (Fra), at 16.45
Other North Americans
15. Claire Buchar (Can), at 27.15
17. Michelle Dumaresq (Can), at 28.70
18. Katerina Strand (Can), at 35.83
21. Junelle Cassidy (Can), at 48.42
26. Gale Dahlager (USA), at 1:03.72
28. Caroline Milot (Can), at 1:18.45