Bode Miller nearly fell on his rump rounding the fourth gate before making his first miraculous recovery. Seconds later, he rocked back on his skis so much it seemed certain gravity would send him toppling before he willed himself back into a crouch.
From the start of Miller's final giant slalom run to its blistering finish, the United States' most gifted skier was keenly aware he was on the brink of wiping out as driving snow blanketed the twisting Birds of Prey course. But straddling the razor's edge of disaster is the essence of skiing's thrill for Miller, and, as he proved again Saturday, it is the essence of what makes him fast.
Psyched beyond words by his high-stakes run, Miller let out a wild, rebel yell as he screeched across the finish to win his first World Cup race of the season, completing the requisite two runs in 2 minutes 34.56 seconds. In a crowd-pleasing twist from Friday's downhill, teammate Daron Rahlves took second to give the United States its second 1-2 finish in as many days, completing his run .09 of a second more slowly than Miller, who had finished second to Rahlves in the downhill.
"That was not ideal," said a smirking Miller, clearly pleased with his wild run. "Those of you that know ski racing know it's not faster to be on your [butt], but it does add excitement!"
Erik Schlopy nearly made it a 1-2-3 sweep for the United States but happily settled for fourth after being edged by Finland's Kalle Palander, whose time was just .01 of a second faster. Schlopy's effort brought the crowd to its feet and brought tears to the eyes of his new wife, former Olympic swimming champion Summer Sanders, after cracking his left hand on one of the gates so hard during his first run that it sent his ski pole flying. Schlopy finished the run with one pole and still ended up tied for fourth. He deferred an X-ray until after the competition, although U.S. ski officials suspected he had broken a bone, and asked a trainer to wrap his hand with a compression bandage and lash it tightly to his ski pole for the second run.
"The hand, on the list of injuries, it's pretty far down as far as seriousness for a ski racer -- besides trying to get the suit on and the boots on," said Schlopy, 33, ecstatic over his fourth-place finish given his battle to regain his confidence after two injury-plagued seasons.
It was a feel-good day all around for the U.S. men's Alpine ski team, which continues to flex its prodigious muscle in preparation for the 2006 Winter Olympics. The American have long considered themselves a deep and talented squad, but all that potential has rarely translated into success at the Olympics. Despite having home-field advantage for the 2002 Winter Games, the U.S. Alpine ski team came away with only two medals at Salt Lake City -- both of them silver, and both won by Miller.
Aspirations are far greater for the U.S. men heading into the Turin Games, which get under way Feb. 10.
"This is what we want to do," said a beaming Bill Marolt, president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. "If we're going to be good in Torino, you want to start well, and you want to build off a good strong foundation. We've got a good start. When the gun goes off in Torino, we'll be ready to go."
Saturday's giant slalom was the first of two so-called "technical events" of the four-day World Cup stop at Beaver Creek. That it was staged at all was something of a triumph. Nearly a foot of fresh powder had fallen overnight, and volunteers toiled like mad on snow cats -- akin to a giant Zamboni that smooths ice on hockey rinks -- to pack the course so it would be solid and sure as skiers zigzagged their way down at breakneck speed.
Of 71 racers making initial runs, only the fastest 30 advanced to the second round, with competitors starting in inverse order of their finish. Americans set an imposing tone early, taking three of the top five spots in the first run: Miller tied with Palander for first; Rahlves was third; and Schlopy was knotted with Austria's Hermann Maier for fourth.
Conditions worsened as the day unfolded, with snow falling harder and visibility sketchy at best when the second runs were held. It only stoked Miller's fire.
"I wanted to put down a run that I was really psyched about," said Miller, the last skier to go. "With the fatigue, the snow conditions, and all the things kind of going against me, I think it felt as if maybe the challenge was more worthy. I like those kind of challenges. It was definitely worthy of a massive effort. It made it a lot easier for me to dig deep."