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Veteran Raich returns to WCup podium after 2 years

Saturday - 3/8/2014, 1:02pm  ET

Benjamin Raich of Austria competes during the first run of an alpine ski men's World Cup giant slalom, in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, Saturday, March 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)

ERIC WILLEMSEN
Associated Press

KRANJSKA GORA, Slovenia (AP) -- Benjamin Raich has reached a World Cup podium for the 91st -- and probably last -- time in his career at the same resort where he earned his first top-three finish 15 years ago.

The 36-year-old Austrian, who is considering retirement after the season, came runner-up to Olympic champion Ted Ligety in a giant slalom on the Podkoren course on Saturday. As a 21-year-old, Raich finished third in a slalom here on Jan. 6, 1999.

Raich was only 17th after the opening leg but posted the fastest time in a blistering second run to get his first World Cup podium since winning a super-G in Crans Montana Switzerland, in February 2012.

Raich said he never lost faith in his skiing despite failing to reach a podium for the last two years. Even his persistent back problems getting worse in January didn't hit his confidence.

"I knew I still have a fast turn but, if you're not in good health, you can't race that good," Raich said. "I've always had back problems in my career. Three, four days, then it was gone. This year it was more than a month."

The injury hampered his buildup to the Sochi Olympics, and finally forced him to skip the super-combined race in Sochi.

It wasn't Raich's first mishap in the Olympic season. He needed weeks to recover following an accident while riding his off-road motorbike in early August. The 80-kilogram bike rolled over on steep terrain and landed on his right leg, but Raich escaped with a torn muscle in his thigh.

"I had a really tough season," Raich said. "It was not easy, it was not fun. But after preparing for the Olympics, I had a really good feeling. I was in good health. And now I am back on the podium -- as I believed."

Raich won the overall title in 2006 and finished runner-up five times, including in the 2008-09 season when Aksel Lund Svindal edged him by two points. Raich also won 11 medals at major championships, including two golds at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Not having to prove anything to anybody, Raich can compete without pressure -- just like in the early days of his career.

"My first podium in Kranjska Gora, I felt very free," Raich said. "Afterward you have big goals and you know everyone wants to see you on the podium. So there was more pressure then but I handled that always very well."

Austria men's head coach Mathias Berthold said he wasn't taken aback by Raich's podium finish.

"I was only surprised by the way he did it, coming from 17th with a sensational second run," Berthold said. "Since his back problems are gone, he has progressed extremely well."

Berthold said he will speak with Raich about next season -- but not before the current campaign is over.

"We let the World Cup finals go by," Berthold said. "It's not good to discuss long-term plans while your focus should be on a race the next day."

Raich has said before that he will take his decision regardless of the career plans of longterm girlfriend Marlies Schild. The 32-year-old slalom specialist won a record 35th slalom race in December, and she is also yet to decide whether she'll remain on the World Cup.

Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen, who trailed the 17-year-older Raich in third for his first career GS podium, said Raich was his idol when following ski racing as a kid.

"I think today Benni was the most impressive skier," Kristoffersen said. "I watched him when I grew up and I remember my dad (Lars Kristoffersen) telling me that Benni had the cleanest turn and he was the best in GS."

Raich smiled when hearing Kristoffersen's words.

"It's nice to be on the podium next to him," Raich said. "Because he is the future and I am the past."


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