March 10, 2010

By Lynn DeBruin

Special to

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - A few weeks ago, Leif Haugen touched Olympic gold, even if it was a medal belonging to Norwegian teammate Aksel Lund Svindal.

Now he has his own gold, compliments of two blazing runs in difficult conditions Wednesday on Mt. Werner that allowed him to capture the NCAA men's giant slalom title in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

"I was up in Whistler and was a little bummed. I didn't do what I hoped for," said Haugen, who finished 28th in giant slalom at the Vancouver Games and didn't even finish in slalom.

"I was just telling myself and all those around, next time I'm going to be on that podium," he said, flashing a wide smile and wild red hair. "It's really inspirational to ski with a group like Axel Svindal and Ansrud Kjetil and all those guys. They won four medals. To feed off their results and their motivation...I really wanted this win. That was something I didn't have."

Haugen's victory, combined with impressive results from his University of Denver teammates, put the two-time defending champion Pioneers in first place at the NCAA championships through the first day.

They are 42.5 points ahead of the University of Utah, which benefited from Eva Huckova's win in the women's giant slalom.

DU leads with 239 points, followed by Utah at 196.5. Vermont is third with 178.5 points, followed by New Mexico with 173 and Dartmouth with 148.

The University of Colorado, which is serving as host for the NCAAs, is in sixth with 143 points.

"They have an extremely deep and talented team and they had an amazing day," said Utah coach Jaka Korencan. " I congratulate them from my heart."

Though DU made a big statement Wednesday, Korencan said "the race (for the team title) is not over. Slalom is on a challenging hill, where anything can happen and we still have the Nordic events to come."

The Nordic events get underway on nearby Howelsen Hill Thursday, followed by slalom under the lights Friday and the men's and women's freestyle events Saturday.

Plus, the weather in Ski Town USA is changing almost by the minute.

The women skied in hard, bumpy conditions early Wednesday and with flat light.

By the time the men's second run started mid-afternoon, it was snowing heavily.

That was just fine by Haugen, a sophomore at DU.

"I was just praying for it to be really gnarly and snowing a lot and bad visibility," he said. "After the season I've had, I've been getting better at rough conditions starting back in the pack in the World Cup (circuit). I knew I'd be able to handle rough conditions."

Haugen turned in the second-best time in the first run (53.84), then won it with a 55.0 second run, edging Dartmouth's Ace Tarberry by 17 hundredths of a second.

Vermont's David Donaldson took third in a combined 1:49:13.

For Tarberry, the first goal was to make All-American and then the podium.

Mission accomplished.

"I couldn't be happier," he said.

The difference for him was going 26th in the second run when he had a lot better course reports.

Of course, the first call he took afterwards was from his brother, Alec, who stepped out of class at Northeast Law School in Boston, where he is a first-year student.

Two years ago, Alec Tarberry took 5th in the giant slalom.

So does Ace now have bragging rights over big brother?

"Damn right I do," he said,

So, finally, does Haugen, who took silver in the giant slalom at last year's NCAAs and bronze in the slalom.

"It's an old DU tradition to have an NCAA individual championship. It was an important step (up)," he said. "I'm here to ski for the team and was telling myself I only need to put down a good solid technical run. I don't need to shoot the moon or anything,"

But his coach, Andy LeRoy, reminded him that the women put DU in first place in the morning.

"He said, 'Just go for it.'"

He did.

"He deserves all the credit," LeRoy said. "He's put such hard work into getting to this level, being competitive on some world cups and making the Olympics this year. He was in a position that I really wanted to see him stand on the top step. He deserves all the accolades he gets."

He'll have to wait until Friday to see if he can make it 2-for-2.