(Reuters) -Manuel Feller led Austria to a sweep of the World Cup slalom podium for the first time since 2001 on Saturday after setting a blistering pace on his opening run in front of a delighted home crowd at Gurgl.

The 31-year-old Feller was nearly a second faster than the field on his first run before winning the race 0.23 ahead of Marco Schwarz for his third World Cup slalom victory and first since 2021. Michael Matt completed the Austrian sweep in the first men’s World Cup slalom held at Gurgl.

“It is always a dream to celebrate a victory at home,” Feller said. “A first victory after two years.

“The crowd was awesome. This was a super premier here in Gurgl. The slope was perfect and standing on the podium with two of my team mates, especially Michael who has had a tough time behind him, is special.”

Feller’s win in the season-opening World Cup skiing slalom was the first for an Austrian in 17 slalom races. He was a career-best second in the overall World Cup slalom standings in 2022.

“It was not the best season for all of us (last year),” Feller said. “We all had struggles. So this is a perfect start. Hopefully, we can continue like that.”

With five skiers left to go, the race was interrupted by climate protesters who had to be dragged away from the finish area. Norwegian skier Henrik Kristoffersen had to be restrained as he lunged at the activists yelling.

“It’s so disrespectful,” Kristoffersen told Norway’s national broadcaster NRK. “Say what you want, vote and try to change things from there. But don’t ruin it for people. It’s completely disgusting.”

TV cameras picked up Kristoffersen and Croatian Filip Zubcic throwing snowballs at the demonstrators.

“(Zubcic) hit one protester in the head. He was happy with that,” Kristoffersen told NRK.

The race was missing last season’s slalom crystal globe winner Lucas Braathen of Norway, who recently shocked the skiing world by announcing his retirement at age 23.

The women’s downhill race in Zermatt-Cervinia in northwest Italy was called off earlier on Saturday due to strong winds.

(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Additional reporting by Tommy Lund; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Ed Osmond)

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