After Bode Miller stumbled on his opening slalom run, and Erik Schlopy withdrew with a broken hand, it seemed likely that the final day of Birds of Prey World Cup would see an end to the American host's hegemony and a resurgence of Austrian dominance on the slopes of Beaver Creek.
But with stars of the U.S. Alpine ski team out of contention, 21-year-old Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah, picked up his country's banner and raced to a third-place result, giving the United States its third consecutive day of podium finishes.
Italy's Giorgio Rocca won the first slalom of the World Cup season, completing his two runs down the twisting mountain course in 1 minute 51.72 seconds.
"It was a little bit luck and a little bit experience," said Rocca, who finished second to Austria's Benni Raich in last year's Birds of Prey slalom.
Finishing second was Stephane Tissot of France, who scorched the wind-swept course on his second run to vault from 18th to a silver medal. "It's amazing," said Tissot. "I can't believe I am second. I was quite lucky."
It was another disappointing day for the Austrians, who held two of the top three spots after the first run. Raich was first; Mario Matt, third. But both faltered on the second run, opening the way for Ligety to sail onto his first World Cup podium. It marked the second consecutive day that the mighty Austrian squad failed to place a skier on the podium.
Ligety's third-place finish -- his best World Cup result -- signaled his emergence as a threat in the international skiing's technical events. Two months ago, he finished eighth in the giant slalom at Soelden, Austria. And he pulled it off by blistering his second run to jump from 12th to second.
"I knew I could be fast," said Ligety, who was cheered on by his parents and a host of cow-bell clanging friends who made the trip from Park City. "I figured I might as well not leave anything on the hill that time. That [second] run I just let it all out, and it worked out pretty well."
As thrilled as he was with the result, Ligety said he didn't want to become known as a slalom specialist and was throwing himself into training for skiing's speed events -- the downhill and Super-G -- much to his mother's dismay.
Beaver Creek's Birds of Prey is the final North American World Cup event before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, which begin Feb. 10. If the goal had been sending the U.S. men's ski team off to Europe brimming with confidence, it couldn't have been scripted more perfectly.
U.S. skiers marched onto the podium five times over the four-day event. Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller finished 1-2 in Friday's downhill, the sport's marquee event. On Saturday they swapped roles, with Miller edging Rahlves for a 1-2 finish in the giant slalom.
Beaver Creek also signaled the return of Schlopy, 33, a two-time Olympian who has struggled with injuries the last two years. Schlopy missed the giant slalom podium by just one one-hundredth of a second -- a stunning result considering that he slammed a gate so hard during his first run that he broke his left hand, lost a pole and still finished fourth.
At 32, Rahlves likely is competing in his final World Cup season. And his strong showing here -- fifth, first and second in the three events he entered -- suggests he'll be a threat in Turin.
Though it's risky to bet on Miller given his high-stakes approach to racing, his performance at Beaver Creek hinted at the possibility that he may finally be seeing the allure of finishing races, rather than using them as occasions to test his limits. In four events, Miller earned a first- and a second-place finish. He wiped out of Friday's Super-G, and on Sunday he failed to qualify for the final round of the slalom.
"It was okay," Miller said of his four-day's work. "I wanted to try to finish these races, and I have two DNFs [did not finish]. But when I finished, I was first and second, so that's not too bad. I've just got to make sure I make it to the finish."
Miller didn't leave the crowd disappointed. After falling on his side in the early stages of his first slalom run, Miller righted himself and marched back up icy hill to the gate he had missed, pointed his skis downhill and completed his run to the delight of the fans.
The slalom is the shortest Alpine event and the trickiest technically, with skiers whipping around 60 or 70 gates on their way down the mountain. Sunday's brutal weather, with temperatures plunging to single digits and wind gusts making it feel closer to 15 degrees below zero, made it even trickier. In the first run, more than one-third of the skiers -- 28 of 74 -- didn't complete the course. The fastest 30 advanced to the second round.
Miller, who missed the cut, said he struggled in particular with how closely the gates were placed to one another on the first run. "Normally, it's good for me," Miller said, "but today I wasn't feeling very quick on my feet."