Published February 07, 2010
GENEVA (AP) — Austria's Alpine skiing "Wunderteam" looks a little less than wonderful going into the Vancouver Olympics.
After its historic 14-medal haul in Turin four years ago, team coaches have set more modest medal targets this time.
Rivals are increasingly confident about toppling the powerhouse whose talismanic leaders Hermann Maier and Renate Goetschl retired last year.
"I think the Swiss guys caught up with them pretty good," said Marco Buechel, a six-time Olympian from Liechtenstein who trains with the Switzerland team. "I'd say if it comes down to medals I'd put Switzerland in the favorite's position."
Buechel's confidence comes from gold medals for Didier Cuche and Carlo Janka at last year's World Championships that carried the Swiss atop the medals table after years of often humiliating defeats to its neighbor at major events.
Austria also got two golds at the 10-event worlds held in Val d'Isere, France — but so did the United States and Germany.
Its aura of invincibility dimmed, and the ski federation made 17 coaching changes in the offseason.
This season, Austria's confidence has been knocked with no World Cup downhill wins in 12 races.
The angst has prompted federation president Peter Schroecksnadel to ask Austrians to stop criticizing the team.
"We don't have the numbers as before, but we have the potential to win," Schroecksnadel said.
Aside from the glamour downhill event, Austria's men have delivered a solid World Cup season.
The ever-reliable Benni Raich heads the overall standings and super-combined discipline; Michael Walchhofer leads in super-G; and Reinfried Herbst is 4-for-8 to top the slalom table.
"We had seasons when we were winning 70 percent of the World Cup races," men's coach Toni Giger said. "Now we are about 35 percent."
The men's Olympic medal goal is similarly halved from the eight gained in Turin, where Raich won giant slalom gold and led a sweep of the slalom podium.
"The target on the men's side is three to four medals," Giger said. "We are still ski nation No. 1, but we see that Switzerland has a really good team and is challenging us."
Giger is a 20-year veteran in the Austrian system, and believes rival teams caught up by copying its methods and hiring its coaches.
He believes the team can overcome Maier's absence, with Raich and Walchhofer's more low-key professionalism keeping standards high.
"(Hermann) had a big personality, but he didn't try to influence the team or the other racers," Giger said. "We tell our young racers they can develop their own personality."
Now, 20-year-old Marcel Hirscher appears ready for the biggest stage after two recent World Cup victories in giant slalom and podium finishes in slalom and super-combi.
The prospects for Austria's women are bleak in downhill.
When pre-race favorite Lindsey Vonn joined the circuit, the American could measure herself against "Queen of Speed" Goetschl and Michaela Dorfmeister, the 2006 Olympic champion in downhill and super-G.
"Now they are gone, and we must build up the young ones," women's head coach Herbert Mandl said.
None of the next generation reached the top 10 in the last three downhills before the games, and their season's-best result is fifth for Maria Holaus at Lake Louise, Canada, in December. Holaus broke an ankle last month and will miss the Olympics.
"It's not realistic that we take a medal in downhill," coach Herbert Mandl said, pinning Austria's hopes on technical specialists Kathrin Zettel and Marlies Schild. "We have two strong racers who could be top three at any time."
Schild, who is engaged to Raich, is a two-time World Cup slalom champion and double medalist in Turin who missed all of last season after breaking her left leg.
She has come back strongly to win two races, while Zettel is world champion in super-combi.
Zettel is a giant slalom specialist who let the worlds gold medal and World Cup discipline title slip away a year ago with disappointing final runs.
Racing on Whistler Mountain could help lift the pressure off her.
"Expectations are big, of course, but the games are far away from Austria so she won't feel this too much," he said. "Maybe this is an advantage."