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Confident Bode Miller fastest in downhill training

Bode Miller on training run Thursday (AFP/Getty.)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Bode Miller arrived here for his fifth Olympics with both a raggedy right knee and a confident, impenetrable swagger. What will happen when the alpine skiing events begin at the Sochi Olympics – starting with Sunday’s men’s downhill – remains to be seen. But in the first training run Thursday, Miller gave every indication that he’ll be somewhere in the thick of it all, stirring things up.

Miller posted the fastest time on the demanding, 2.17-mile course in Thursday’s training session, a result that is both encouraging and confusing as several of the top racers missed gates or skied tentatively in order to feel out the Rosa Khutor layout. But Miller — the 36-year-old from New Hampshire who won three medals at the Vancouver Games – made it clear afterward: The course is hard, and that means he’ll be a factor.

“I’m really glad that they didn’t dumb it down,” Miller said. “It tends to be, these days in World Cup, they just keep making courses easier and easier, and taking away the real challenging sections. That makes it tougher and tougher for the guys that want to win to separate themselves. The field is so tight and so close together. It’s nice to see that they left some real challenging components in this.”

Miller considers himself up to it, and when he finished his run Thursday and greeted his wife Morgan in the finishing area, he essentially put himself and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal – the silver medalist in downhill four years ago – in a small group of favorites. In assessing the field, he said skiers such as Austria’s Klaus Kroell and Switzerland’s Beat Feuz “have different skill sets,” and might struggle against such a challenging course, while he and Svindal could excel.

“This course is long enough and it’s got enough dynamic sections that rather than eliminating certain guys from the medals, it just means they have to struggle through certain sections and then really execute on the part where they’re good and see if they can pull time back,” Miller said. “There’s a few guys who don’t really have that many weak sections; luckily, I’m one of them. I won’t lose, really, much in any areas.”

It was typical Miller, with his thoughts and emotions right at the surface. Four years ago, he took bronze in the downhill, silver in the super-G and gold in the super combined. He is coming off his two best finishes of the World Cup season, a third in a super-G and second in a downhill in Kitzbuehl, Austria. He combines so many of the necessary aspects to excel in this sport – athleticism, bravado and a nearly unmatched willingness to push the edge – that when he starts putting things together, even at his advanced age, everyone on the hill notices.

“You can see he’s been building all summer and all season to this moment,” said Travis Ganong, one of the four American men who will race in the downhill. “He’s really coming into peak form right now, which is cool to see. He had a good program leading up to this point, and now he’s looking like he’s getting in position to really have a good chance to medal here.”

Even while favoring his knee, which he rocked in a crash during a giant slalom race Feb. 2 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

“It’s still puffed up a little bit and a little bit sore,” Miller said. “But there’s nothing wrong with it. It just got banged hard.”

The men will train twice more for the downhill, though Miller didn’t commit to skiing in all the sessions. He, Ganong and veteran Marco Sullivan have all earned starting spots, while three other athletes – Steven Nyman, Jared Goldberg and Erik Fisher – will essentially have a time trial in Friday’s training run for the fourth spot.