PYEONGCHANG, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal bears all the scars from horrific crashes and career-threatening injuries as mementos of a tough life on the piste, but at the age of 35, he heads into Sunday’s men’s downhill as one of the favourites for Olympic gold.
In the final chapter of a brilliant career, Svindal has the chance to become the oldest man ever to win an alpine skiing gold medal at the Pyeongchang Games.
Durability is something of a trait in Norwegian skiers.
Svindal’s boyhood idol Kjetil Andre Aamodt won Super-G gold at Turin in 2006 aged 34, a record until Austria’s Mario Matt won the slalom at Sochi four years ago, also at the age of 34.
Lasse Kjus won gold in the combined as a 23-year-old on home snow in Lillehammer in 1994 and was still competing in three events at the Turin Games as a 35-year-old.
Svindal, who won gold, silver and bronze in Vancouver in 2010, failed to medal in Sochi and has been plagued by injuries in recent years but the Norwegian looks to have hit form at just the right time.
So far this season he has won World Cup races in downhill at Beaver Creek and Val Gardena, and picked up a victory in Super-G at Kitzbuehel in January.
“I’m really happy I’m back because, honestly, the last two years were not super easy. A big knee injury is probably the worst injury you can have as a ski racer,” he told Reuters.
Svindal certainly is back.
He sits second in the World Cup downhill standings — behind Switzerland’s Beat Feuz — and also faces a strong challenge from in-form 24-year-old German Thomas Dressen, who won the prestigious Kitzbuehel downhill last month.
The Norwegian, however, remains focused on getting the one prize that has so far eluded him.
“If I could choose one race to win this year, it would be the Olympic downhill,” he said.
Svindal’s last two seasons have ended prematurely due to knee injuries.
Those came on top of an absence of nearly a year following a massive crash in 2007 and another long layoff four years ago with an Achilles tendon injury he sustained kicking a ball around with his team mates.
Nothing epitomises the courage and durability that Svindal has shown throughout his career than the way he turned the Colorado venue of Beaver Creek from being the scene of a nightmare to one of his favourite courses.
In November 2007, Svindal was at his peak when he tumbled dramatically down the piste after misjudging a jump in training while racing along at 120 km per hour on the tricky Golden Eagle section.
He was left unconscious on the slope, with a deep gash in his left buttock caused by one of his skis. He also broke a bone in his back and had several fractures to his face.
He was rushed to hospital where he was to spend three weeks and it was a full 10 months before he returned to action.
Yet returning to Beaver Creek, a year after that bloody crash, Svindal put the bad memories aside and won both downhill and Super-G in spectacular style and set up a season where he regained his overall World Cup crown.
As if to emphasise his mental strength, the Norwegian has since won three more downhill World Cup races at Beaver Creek.
Having lost his mother, who died in childbirth when he was eight years old, the popular Norwegian’s friendly demeanour has sometimes masked his steely determination.
The key to his ability to keep bouncing back is, he says, an ability to concentrate purely on the task ahead.
“I don’t like to get hurt. But I like the challenge of returning from injury,” he said.
On Sunday, on the Gariwang mountain, he will have the biggest stage of all to show that at 35, he can still be the world’s fastest man on skis. (Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by John O’Brien)