Olympic slalom champion Matt seeks turnaround before worlds

SCHLADMING, Austria (AP) Olympic champion Mario Matt has one last chance to get his slalom season on track before the Alpine skiing world championships.

In Tuesday’s night race, the Austrian wants to see a turnaround in fortunes. He failed to finish the first five slaloms of this World Cup campaign before placing 19th in Wengen, Switzerland, last week and 12th in Kitzbuehel, Austria, on Sunday.

A poor run of results usually doesn’t unsettle Matt. He didn’t finish three of the last four World Cup races before taking gold at the Sochi Games. And he skied out in a first run twice just before winning the world title in 2001.

But less than three weeks before the Feb. 15 slalom at the worlds in Beaver Creek – likely his last major event – the 35-year-old Matt was seeking confirmation.

”I’ve been fast in training all season. But you need some results in races to free your mind,” he said Monday. ”I know that if everything fits, I can keep up with the fastest. That’s decisive.”

Winning gold in Sochi capped an illustrious career. A month after his World Cup debut in December 1999, Matt won his first race, in Kitzbuehel. Thirteen more World Cup wins and two world titles followed.

Matt, who spends much of his time away from the slopes as a breeder of Asian horses, considered retirement in the offseason. But it was the joy of competing and the prospect of racing at another major event that kept him going.

However, bad luck and equipment issues caused a disastrous start into the new season.

”I’ve been lightning fast,” Matt said. ”In Madonna I would have been on the podium for sure, in Are I had a change to make the podium too. Until (December), the speed was there. But then I had to use new skis and new boots, and we didn’t manage to get it right before Zagreb. That got to me, it was really annoying.”

After five pointless races, Matt even trailed his 21-year-old brother Michael, an up and coming talent, in the World Cup standings.

”I am more sensitive than others,” Matt said about his equipment struggle. ”If something in the setup isn’t 100 percent right, it has an extreme effect on me.”

Matt realized he had to change his approach to rebuild his confidence – by at least reaching the finish in both runs of an event.

He avoided risks by slowing down in Wengen. The following week in Kitzbuehel, he improved seven spots after a second run that showed flashes of the all-confident racer that sped to Olympic gold less than a year ago.

”My second run was great until the final split time,” Matt said. ”I will try to build on that. The feeling was there again, the feeling like I am having in training all season.”

Austria slalom head coach Marko Pfeifer said Matt ”had no mental problem.”

”With his experience, he knows best what’s wrong,” Pfeifer said. ”But he still needs someone who talks to him. He is going in the right direction and needs a decent result now.”

Matt won his last World Cup race in Val d’Isere, France, in December 2013. He didn’t finish, or was disqualified, in nine of the 14 races since, and only reached the podium once – at the season-ending race in Lenzerheide in March.

With the worlds looming, the Austrian is eager to gain further confidence in Tuesday’s night slalom, which he won in 2000 and 2008. It’s the same course where he earned bronze at the worlds two years ago.

”Good memories don’t help me,” Matt said. ”It’s important the set-up is good and I feel well so I can fully attack.”