Antoine Deneriaz surprised everyone except himself when he beat the season's best downhill skiers to become Olympic champion on Sunday.

The Olympic magic that had seemed to inspire French alpine skiers in recent Games worked miracles again but unlike 1998 gold medallist Jean-Luc Cretier or 2002 women's winner Carole Montillet, Deneriaz had serious credentials with three previous World Cup wins in 2003 and 2004.

The real surprise was how fast the 29-year-old giant from Morillon made it back from a stretcher to the top of an Olympic podium.

A year ago, in Chamonix, the Frenchman crashed just as he was hitting the form of a lifetime and smashed his knee. The injury did not hamper Deneriaz's morale and the new Olympic champion now remembers how he joked about the crash at the time.

"I remember being on the stretcher and telling Bill (Gilles Burnier), my coach that I would not be world champion, but Olympic champion," he said.

And Deneriaz confirmed he never had any doubts about his chances to upstage the current stars of the discipline, Michael Walchhofer and Hermann Maier of Austria and Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves of the United States.

"It was thirteen long months since the injury but I worked step by step to make it back with the Olympic gold in mind.

"I told myself, do it, do it, do it, and I did," he said.

Italy has always inspired the gentle bearded giant from across the border, who won in Val Gardena twice in succession in 2003 and 2004 and was especially at ease on Sestriere's Kandahar piste.

"I felt very well on this course, better with every day. And today, I reached the top," he said.

Not even the fact of starting with number 30, after all the other favourites had finished, was not a handicap for the softspoken Frenchman.

"I also won my two Val Gardena races from number 30, so I knew what kind of pressure to expect.

"The good thing, when starting with a high number is that you don't have to wait for the final outcome, you know you've made it," he said.

Rather than a one-off upset, Deneriaz's victory had been meticulously planned. And many French former downhill greats at the finish line like Cretier or Luc Alphand paid their tribute to the success of a "hard-worker."

"Luc (Alphand) crashed here in 1997 at the worlds while he was the best downhill skier in the world and I told him I would avenge him," Deneriaz said.

For despite the jokes, the good spirit and the permanent smile on his face, Deneriaz is a fierce competitor.

"In everyday's life, he is an angel but in a race, he's a warrior. He worked hard for it, did everything he could to get it and he amply deserves it," said his team mate Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin.

The happiest man at the finish was his father, blowing a lame Marseillaise on a horn to celebrate the long years teaching his son to ski in Morillon.