KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The past two winners of the Olympic combined Alpine races suited up in American uniforms Friday. Ted Ligety was the surprise victor eight years ago in Italy but is a master at his craft now, a legitimate favorite. Bode Miller was the gold medalist in Vancouver, the crowning achievement of an all-over-the-map career, and still a contender at 36.
But with the super combined up Friday, and prospects for a U.S. medal promising, each faltered, and badly. Miller fell behind in a substandard downhill run, then made — by his own estimation — too many small errors over a demanding slalom course, ending up sixth. Ligety, who won the world championship in super combined last year, failed to commit to skiing aggressively in the slalom, the stronger discipline for him, and stumbled to 12th — each trailing surprise gold medalist Sandro Viletta of Switzerland.
“I was pretty lousy,” Miller said after his slalom run.
On a confusing day in which the morning downhill was contested in bright sun and the afternoon slalom in quickly cooling temperatures — helping a deteriorating course hold up — Viletta placed 14th in the downhill, but then laid down the second-fastest slalom run for a combined time of 2 minutes 45.20 seconds — just 0.34 seconds faster than Ivica Kostelic of Croatia, a master slalom racer whose father Ante, an official with the International Ski Federation, actually set up the slalom course.
Viletta, 28, has only one World Cup victory to his credit, a super-G last December in Beaver Creek, Colo. Kostelic now has four silver medals, more than any Alpine skier, and Italy’s Christof Innerhofer added a bronze to the silver he won in downhill to start the week.
“At the moment,” Viletta said, “I cannot believe that this is true.”
That may, too, be the case for the Americans, who have only one medal through the first four Alpine events here: Julia Mancuso’s bronze in the super combined. At the men’s and women’s downhills and the men’s and women’s combined races in Vancouver, the United States combined for two golds, a silver and a bronze.
“As a team, we skied defensive,” U.S. men’s coach Sasha Rearick said.
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
Start with Miller. The best skier in training prior to Sunday’s downhill, he finished that race a disappointing eighth, a result he attributed more to conditions than his own errors. But when he took to a slightly shorter downhill course Friday, needing to build a lead and then survive the slalom, he couldn’t come through.
“The mistakes I made, there’s no excuse for those,” he said between runs, when he stood 12th. His slalom actually wasn’t that bad: 51.93 seconds, seventh in the field, and his total time was 1.40 seconds behind Viletta. It all left plenty for Miller to mull.
“Obviously, I should’ve skied better in the downhill,” Miller said. “If I had skied well, I would’ve been a second faster probably, and that puts me on the podium. But I should’ve skied a second-and-a-half faster in the slalom, at least, and that would’ve put me on the podium. Either one.”
Ligety’s error was one of approach. He stood 18th after the downhill, which sounds daunting — and it was, particularly because he was a full second behind Kostelic. But he also knew that many of the downhill racers would falter on a course set by Ante Kostelic, who has a reputation for a high degree of difficulty.
“He sets the course in an old-fashioned way,” Ivica Kostelic said, referring to the varying differences between gates, which hinder a skier’s ability to develop a rhythm, paramount in slalom.
What Ligety found, though, confounded him. The course, he thought, was “surprisingly easy.” The snow, too — so wet from all the sun — actually held up as temperatures cooled. And Ligety couldn’t adjust.
“I skied definitely way too conservatively,” Ligety said. “That’s really frustrating, for sure. I would’ve much rather blown out being on the line of being fast than done what I did today.”
Keys to the skis
American Jared Goldberg, skiing in his first Olympics as a 22-year-old, actually beat Ligety, finishing 11th. Andrew Weibrecht, who won bronze in the super-G in Vancouver, failed to complete the slalom run, crashing out.
So the American men now turn their attention to Sunday’s super-G, still seeking their first medal. Ligety, who won gold in that discipline at last year’s world championships, will have another chance at a medal, as will Miller and possibly Weibrecht. But they must first put behind a frustrating start to these Olympics.
“Today was tough,” Miller said. “It was tough for everybody. I don’t think anybody came down that thing feeling awesome — maybe Viletta. I’m not sure.”