Mountains of the Olympics
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — At the bottom of the race hill here, where banks of empty bleachers basked in the sun Friday morning, the entirety of the men’s downhill course can’t be seen or, really, comprehended. Its nastiness lies in the two miles above. There are sweeping turns that traverse from tree line to tree line. There is ice. And at 80 mph, there are jumps, jumps that will fling racers as far as a 90-yard pass.
“You feel like you’re flying,” American Travis Ganong said Friday. “A flying dream.”
It is a perfect way to open the Alpine competition at the Sochi Olympics on Sunday: the men’s downhill — skiing’s fastest event — over what competitors have described, following two days of training, as an exhausting, exhilarating course. And it was after his second pass over that terrain that Bode Miller stood, leaned into his ski boots, and considered the toll on his 36-year-old body, which at the moment includes a throbbing right knee.
“There’s a lot of places where you’re kind of bouncing around,” Miller said. “When you’re bouncing around at my age, it doesn’t feel that good.”
What clearly feels good to Miller, though, are these moments preparing to master such a difficult course. A day after posting the fastest time in the inaugural training run, Miller finished sixth on Friday, another indication that, in his fifth Olympics, he is a contender for a downhill medal here — and perhaps a contender in multiple events over the course of the competition. He has admitted that much over the first two days of training.
His self-assessment is this: He has the kind of diverse array of skills to compete in any of skiing’s disciplines, and the Rosa Khutor downhill course demands that skiers combine them all. They must turn at the top. They must tuck at the bottom. They must soar through the air over jumps with names such as the “Russian Trampoline,” and the “Lake Jump,” named because as the skiers approach, all they can see is the lake below.
“There’s a few guys who don’t really have that many weak sections,” Miller said. “Luckily, I’m one of them. I won’t lose, really, much in any areas.”
Rough translation: I can win this thing. He said he will use Saturday’s final training session to try yet another set of skis, to determine what might work best over a course on which the snow conditions change drastically from top to bottom. He will pick apart the best lines to take. He will consider how sharp his skis should be. For someone who, eight years ago in a medal-less performance in Turin, seemed so flippant, he will be analytical.
“I’d say I have a lot more experience,” Miller said. “I know what the process is. It’s easy for guys who are so excitable to push too hard, to do too much too early. I definitely know that winning a training run doesn’t matter much. I’ve done that so many times. I think I have a good process for how to build into a race.”
It is a process that leaves competitors marveling a bit. Miller’s on-hill talents have always been apparent. A racer who seems to intentionally push the limits of possibility, and occasionally propriety, he can careen off course, collect himself, and still contend. That stuff is obvious. But there is, too, the process of assessing what’s before him — the challenges, the dangers — and deciding how best to proceed.
“Bode’s a master at it,” U.S. veteran Steven Nyman said. “He’s kind of dialed everything in. He knows how to figure stuff out.”
What he won’t be able to account for in the downhill is the competition, and it is stout. No one is more prominent than Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal, the current leader in the World Cup downhill standings who took silver four years ago in Vancouver. Svindal’s results in downhills thus far this season: two wins, a second, a third and two fourths. Miller, who took bronze behind Svindal in Vancouver, hasn’t won a World Cup downhill since late 2011, and though he has improved as the Olympics approached, he has just one top-three finish this season. Svindal, he knows, looms in the way.
“Aksel is super-consistent, rock-solid, doesn’t really take risks very often,” Miller said. “The risks he takes are calculated on what it’s going to take to win. I more or less ski with the intent to push myself, so sometimes the risk is out of proportion with where the rewards come from.”
So how to assess the field? Austria’s Hannes Reichelt, who won a thrilling downhill event in Kitzbuehel, Austria, late last month by beating Svindal and Miller, is out after needing back surgery, robbing the skiing-rich country — whose men failed to win a medal in Vancouver — of its best speed hope. Switzerland’s Didier Defago, the defending Olympic champion, was ninth in training Friday. The only man to post runs that exceeded Miller’s was Austria’s Matthias Mayer, who was fastest Friday and third Thursday.
“But it is ski racing,” said Svindal, third in Friday’s training. “Who knows?”
What is known: The course here is fast and challenging. The skiers will hurtle through the air. And somehow, some way, Miller will find the attention falling his way, because in these circumstances he always does.