By Josef Metzger
Die Presse (AUT)
It's a love affair. On and off the slopes. Both of them like snow, skiing and racing. Both of them were hopefuls in their youth collecting medals at the junior world championships. Both of them converted talent into success as adults. Both of them slalom-specialists turned into skilled all-round-skiers. Two years ago they fell in love. They have been engaged for more than a year. Long story but, in short: Benjamin “Benni” Raich, 27, who won five medals and took two golds at the world championships last year in Bormio, and Marlies Schild, 24, who won a bronze in the combined, could shine as the darling couple of the Torino Winter Games. They never tried to hide the love affair but kept it low profile instead of making headlines out of it. The way they handle it reflects their character. Both of them are not shy of the public, but hope to bathe in the limelight only by success. Both of them are considered to be perfect role models of the Austrian system, climbing to the top tutored and monitored by the federation and their officials. The right story that fits into the right frame. The contradiction to “Herminator“ Maier, who had managed his break-through as a 23 year old bricklayer only by chance as a forerunner on home ground in Flachau back in 1996, could not be sharper. Nowadays Raich and Maier prepare themselves for a season and races in the same group (with Walchhofer und Matt) coached by Andreas Evers. Most recently Benjamin and his fiancee Marlies underlined their Olympic ambitions with impressive performances and winning ways. While Raich stormed back to victory shortly before Christmas in a giant slalom on his favoured slope in Kranjska Gora, Slovenija, missing out on a double with a fall in the slalom when leading, Schild gave the home crowd something to cheer about, winning the slalom in Lienz in style ahead of team-mate Hosp and Kostelic. For Herbert Mandl, head coach of the Austrian ski ladies, it was no suprise but nothing more than confirmation of the high standards Marlies had set in preparation times: “Never in my days as a coach did I see a girl skiing better slalom than Schild. I was sure she could show it in races as soon as she regained her self-confidence and mental composure after bad luck in the early stages of the season!“. And she proved it. By comparison to Benjamin, who blossomed early, justifying his nickname, “Blitz from Pitz”, taking his first podium in 1999, winning the slaloms of Wengen, Kitzbühel and Schladming in a row, before taking silver at the worlds in St. Anton 2001, Marlies struggled in the early stages haunted by falls and injuries. She had to undergo surgery not only once but five times to get her damaged knees right back to business and on terms with her born talent. She still feels the pain sometimes when practise is hard and slopes are bumpy but has adjusted well. She fulfilled long-time promises when she rose to the occasion, taking slalom silver at the 2003 worlds right on the heels of Janica Kostelic, the all-time-great from Croatia. It was the perfect turnaround thanks to her superior technique on skis based on her physical strength.
“Marlies“, says Mandl, “is on the athletic side the number one in our team!“. She does a lot of bodywork in addition to her skiing. Her willpower and skiing abilities led also to progress in Super G and downhill. That puts her in a position to challenge even Kostelic and Paerson in the Combined at the Olympics, following the footsteps of boyfriend Benni, who won bronze in Salt Lake City as well as in St. Moritz, before he crowned himself world champion 2005 in the Combined. Though he benefited in Bormio from Bode Miller’s bad luck (he lost a ski in the downhill section of the combined) Raich is not only a versatile all-rounder but much more consistent and solid than the shaky, unpredictable American, considered one of his main rivals in the battle for gold alongside the Norwegians Aamodt, Svindal, Kjus and his Austrian team mates Walchhofer, Schönfelder and Matt. Raich might not look like a daredevil – the Tyrolean nevertheless has a big heart and is full of courage. He did prove it in times when his schedule allowed him to try out as an accomplished ice climber and bungy jumper in his home-village of Arzl. His first instructor and coach was his father who still comes to races with a group of Benni supporters to watch his son and wave flags and banners showing his nickname Blitz from Pitz. Benni has matured; he is a strong self-believer who knows what he is able to do at the highest level as long as everything goes (with material) the proper way. And over the years he has also become used to the pressure as a pre-race-favourite, who has to answer lots of questions, not only in his native German language (with tyrolean accent) but also by the international media in English which he speaks almost fluently. He has learned to live with and to live up to high expectations of the ski-crazy Austrians. His and her goals are set - winning medals and becoming Olympic heroes in Sestriere and San Sicario. It would be the perfect happy end of a love affair in a fairy ski tale.