Deneriaz's run 'perfect Olympic story'

SESTRIERE, Italy -- Think Joe Carter's bottom-of-the-ninth home run to win the World Series. Think Vince Young's winning touchdown run to give the Texas Longhorns the national title.

Now you can add Frenchman Antoine Deneriaz's 2006 Olympic gold-medal downhill run to the list. Because on a blue-bird day in the Italian Alps, with perfect snow and the race all but declared over, Deneriaz's race to victory was that dreamlike.

And while he may not have been the one everyone came to see, he pulled off exactly what everyone came to see: the perfect run at the perfect time.

"It's the perfect Olympic story," said Lichtenstein's Marco Buechel. "I am truly happy for him."

Until then, it was a surprisingly lackluster race.

American front-runners Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves skied well, but did not turn in their typically electrifying performances. Austria's Michael Walchhofer was predictably fast, sitting atop the leader board after 29 of the top 30 ranked skiers had crossed the finish line. The crowd seemed to shift their attention away from the hill and on to their next plate of pasta.

Deneriaz, who was the 30th skier out of the gate, lurched out of the gate without much fanfare, but then his first split time popped up on the screen. He was .14 seconds ahead. The crowd snapped to attention. Deneriaz rocketed down the course, the perfect vision of controlled chaos, arms pressing forward, legs loose underneath him, and with each interval time, his lead grew. And so did the gasps from the crowd.

He was not perfect, he had slip-ups, but they only made him go faster. Much faster. He crossed the finish line a crushing .72 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Walchhofer took silver, Bruno Kernen of Switzerland was bumped to bronze and the great Norwegian, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, was suddenly empty handed in fourth.

"It was a long, long run for me," Deneriaz said, "I was at the start, telling myself do it, do it, do it. I attacked the whole way down and when I got to the finish, it was great."

While the run seemed long, it began much earlier than his 1:48.80 run time. It started 13 months ago on the operating table after he crashed in a World Cup downhill in Chamonix, France, and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

"Right after the operation, I said 'I'm going to make it. The Olympics only happen once every four years and I'm going to make it.' The first month of rehab was really difficult, but all that time, I was thinking about the Olympics."

While you might expect the top dogs to be disappointed in an upset on their biggest stage, among the brotherhood of downhillers, a race like Deneriaz's is not only understood, it's respected. After all, .20 seconds can be explained by a gust of wind. But .72? That's a whole other level.

"That guy was possessed!" said Rahlves, who made no secret of the fact that the Olympic downhill gold was his goal at the beginning of this season. Rahlves, who looked nearly unbeatable on this Kandahar Banchetta course earlier in the week, was satisfied with his run, saying he gave it everything he had.

"Obviously, it would have taken a hurricane wind to get me to first," said Bode Miller, who was just .05 seconds out of a bronze medal until Deneriaz came down pushing him to fifth. "I don't think [Deneriaz] did anything that was that much better. I've said it before, the variables that go into this sport are huge."

As Deneriaz showed, when those variables magically align, the result is equally impressive. The champ barely had time to get his skis off before Walchhofer and Kernen were by his side, giving him congratulatory hugs. Still, it wasn't until he walked into the racer's tent in the finish area that his achievement finally sunk in.

"He walked into the tent with a look of pure joy on his face," Buechel said. "And I looked at him and said 'Champion Olympique!'"

"Say it again," Deneriaz responded.

"Champion Olympique!"

"Say it again," the golden boy said, "it sounds so beautiful."

Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.