Kiwis poised to step out of Coberger's shadow

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014
Janina Kuzma
STREETER LECKA/ Getty

TOP EFFORT: Janina Kuzma finished fifth in the women's freeski halfpipe at Sochi.

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For more than two decades, winter sport in New Zealand has stood in the shadow of a fresh-faced Christchurch skier standing on an Olympic podium in France.

More than anything, Annelise Coberger's silver medal in the women's slalom at the 1992 Albertville Olympics created a degree of expectation of what Kiwis on snow could achieve.

The same question has been asked at every four-year interval since the Winter Games switched to its biennial gap from the Summer event - how come we aren't back on the podium? We've got the snow, we've got the ski and snowboarding culture here.

Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City, Torino, Vancouver - count them off. Another Winter Olympics, another underwhelming Kiwi campaign.

Not Sochi, however. This year has seen a New Zealand effort that has finally stepped out from that 22-years-long shadow.

The last fortnight has seen the Kiwi team notch five top 10 placings across freeskiing and speed skating; the most ever in New Zealand Winter Olympics history at a single Games.

While the impressive fourth placing of Wanaka freeskier Jossi Wells in the men's halfpipe stood out as the team's best result, it was perhaps the surprise fifth by world No 18 Janina Kuzma in the women's freeski halfpipe yesterday that gave the campaign the exclamation point it needed in the public's eyes.

The five top 10 finishes eclipse the NZOC's Sochi target of three - but falls short of a medal they were also after.

Snowsports New Zealand winter high performance director Ashley Light believed that Kuzma's result propelled the Kiwi team's effort from par - to slight over-achievement, but says a medal certainly would have been nice.

''If you look at Janina's world ranking going into the event, you would describe it as that,'' he said.

''She's certainly gone above her world ranking. The team are disappointed we didn't come away with that one medal we were after - but if you reflect on it, Janina's result was fantastic after the men's halfpipe earlier in the week.

''Adam Barwood [New Zealand's last athlete, who will compete early tomorrow morning] will be inspired by that, and look to go into the top 40 in the slalom skiing.''

Along with the five top 10s, the Kiwi team claimed an additional five top 16 finishes - a mark that has long been held as the criteria for selection for the New Zealand Summer Olympic team.

Kuzma and women's skeleton racer Katharine Eustace, who finished 11th in her event, were the biggest surprise packages of Sochi for New Zealand, while snowboarder Bex Sinclair, who finished 21st in the halfpipe, and men's skeleton rider Ben Sandford, 20th overall, were the prime under-achievers.

Injuries hit some of New Zealand's big medal hopes with snowboarder Christy Prior, who is ranked third in the world in slopestyle, suffering concussion before her semi-final and freeskier Byron Wells badly injured his leg in training - ruling himself out of halfpipe competition.

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As far as continuing that advance out of Coberger's shadow and onto a possible podium in Pyeongchang in 2018, Prior and freeskier Beau-James Wells, who claimed a sixth in the halfpipe, look best positioned as big Kiwi hopes. The youngest of the famed Wells clan, Jackson, will also be in line for an Olympic callup by then, too.

- Stuff

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