Top medal contenders: Men's snowboarding parallel slalom
Parallel slalom (PSL) is one of the new snowboarding disciplines added to the Olympic program for Sochi and will take place three days after its sister event, the parallel giant slalom (PGS). Parallel slalom, also known as parallel special slalom, features a shorter length of course and tighter gates than the parallel giant slalom.
While parallel slalom is new to the Olympics, it has been contested at every World Championships since the inaugural event in 1996 and has long been a fixture of the World Cup circuit (although the Sochi test event was cancelled last year due to slushy conditions). While some may have minor strengths or weaknesses in either event, top PGS riders have typically also excelled in PSL (and vice versa), so the results of Wednesday's PGS contest should suggest more about this event than any prior competition.
Justin Reiter (Photo: Getty Images)
That said, American Justin Reiter would be more than happy if PSL history were to repeat itself in Sochi. The 33-year-old from Steamboat Springs, Colorado was the silver medalist in this event at last year’s World Championships, a stunning result for a man who briefly retired from the sport after narrowly failing, for the second time, to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2010. Reiter’s dedication is unquestioned – he spent parts of the summer and fall living in his Toyota Tundra as he trained in Park City – but the regression of his results so far this World Cup season were a reminder that a storybook Olympic medal may be just out of reach for Reiter in Sochi. His Olympics got off to a rough start when he finished 24th in PGS qualifying, failing to advance to the finals.
More promising are the hopes of another American-born rider, Vic Wild. The White Salmon, Washington native has competed for Russia since marrying his Russian girlfriend, 2011 PGS world champion Alena Zavarzina, and he’s had the best results of his career while competing for the Olympic host country, including winning a gold medal in Wednesday's parallel giant slalom contest. Other than the first run of the big final, Wild looked dominant throughout the event and will hope that momentum carries over to Saturday's competition.
Embedded video_content_type: Vic Wild wins gold in men's parallel giant slalom
Entering his fourth and likely final Games at age 35, Switzerland’s Simon Schoch is still best remembered for the feat he and his younger brother Philipp pulled off in Torino, when they became just the third set of brothers to win gold and silver in the same event at the same Olympic Winter Games (Philipp won gold, a repeat of his Salt Lake performance). Since he began struggling with back pain in recent years, Simon, the older brother, has been the stronger Schoch. He is best in this event, in which he has placed first, second, third, fourth and fifth (twice) at the World Championships during his long career.
If parallel giant slalom served as any indication, Switzerland's best hope for a PSL medal could come from a different source. Nevin Galmarini, who fell to Wild in the big final, earned a silver medal in his second Olympic appearance. All four Swiss riders made the PGS finals, but 27-year-old Kaspar Fluetsch was the fastest of the group in qualifying.
The Slovenian trio of Rok Marguc, Rok Flander and Zan Kosir gives that tiny nation three legitimate medal hopes. Marguc, a former basketball and handball player in his youth, edged Reiter in the final at last year’s Worlds, giving him a World Championships gold medal to go with his bronze from 2011. Kosir, meanwhile, has excelled despite persistent back troubles during his career and already has an Olympic medal to his credit in Sochi. He entered the Olympics with three World Cup podiums in his first five races this season despite continued pain, then took home bronze in Wednesday's PGS competition.
Embedded video_content_type: Zan Kosir earns bronze in parallel giant slalom
Austria has the deepest alpine snowboarding team in the world, but lately the group has not been as successful in parallel slalom as in parallel giant slalom. Benjamin Karl, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist in PGS, is a two-time world champion in this event, but he has not reached a parallel slalom podium since 2011. His teammate Andreas Prommegger is one of the most decorated riders in the world, but he has never won a medal at major championship. Their teammate Lukas Mathies, currently leading the World Cup standings at age 22, has the makings of the next great Austrian snowboard racer, but the Olympic rookie has not distinguished himself in parallel slalom. Despite being stronger in PGS, the team as a whole disappointed in that event on Wednesday - Mathies was disqualified on his first qualification run, Karl was eliminated in the first round of racing, and Prommegger failed to advance out of the quarterfinals.
Despite Austria’s depth, Italy boasts two of the top three parallel slalom racers from last year’s World Cup standings in Roland Fischnaller and Aaron March, who spent three weeks last spring as part of a group that biked the 2,000 miles from Fischnaller’s hometown of Villnoes, Italy to Sochi. While March has not been as consistently strong in his career, the 33-year-old Fischnaller has been a force since Vancouver, and this is his better event. Last year, Reiter, who was giddy to have edged him in the semifinals at Worlds, nevertheless referred to “Fish” as “the fastest slalom rider in the world.” He has not looked like it this year, however, raising the possibility that the four-time Olympian’s finest moment in Sochi may in the end be on a bike, not a snowboard. Both riders struggled in Wednesday's PGS competition, failing to advance past the qualifying round.
2010 PGS gold medalist Jasey Jay Anderson (Photo: Getty Images)
Other athletes to watch are Canada’s Jasey Jay Anderson, the 38-year-old reigning Olympic champion in PGS who came out of retirement in 2011 in part because this event, his favorite, had been added to the Olympic program; France’s Sylvain Dufour; and a pair of Germans, Alexander Bergmann and Patrick Bussler.
Live streaming coverage of men's and women's parallel slalom begins Saturday at 12:15 a.m. ET on NBCOlympics.com with the qualifying round. Men's and women's finals will get underway at 4:15 a.m. ET on NBCOlympics.com.
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